The text below is the FYN response to the 2016 Welsh Government consultation on foundation years. The overall response is summarised here.
Question 1 – We have outlined a series of concerns regarding foundation year provision, principally that it represents poor value for money and does not obviously provide any benefit to the student when compared to the available alternative routes to higher education. Do you agree with this analysis? Why?
The Foundation Year Network (hereafter ‘FYN’; see response to question 5 for further context) believes that many of the concerns raised in the consultation document are either hard to sustain, or else based upon fundamental misconceptions of the nature and operation of foundation years. The analysis as presented in the consultation document is particularly weak in relation to the benefits of HE foundation year provision to undergraduate students when compared to alternative routes to higher education offered by level 3 providers.
The evidence base upon which to assess properly whether or not foundation years ‘represent poor value for money’ does not currently exist at a national level. If it did, members of FYN are very confident it would clearly demonstrate that foundation years in fact represent much better value for money than many alternatives. It is for this reason that many individual HEIs continue to resource their own foundation year provision.
Increasing numbers of students appreciate the added value of this provision by choosing integrated degree with foundation year pathways in preference to other alternatives. Reasons cited by students for actively choosing to follow foundation year pathways at Welsh HEIs include the added confidence that comes from studying, being supported and demonstrably succeeding within a real HE context; the provision of a guaranteed progression pathway from foundation year to level 4 study upon achievement of the requisite progression requirements (no such guarantee exists for students undertaking level 3 courses in FE); the deferred nature of loan repayments for HE study (pay once you earn) compared to the ‘upfront’ nature of some costs incurred by accessing FE provision; the greater potential to access maintenance support within HE; and critically, for those mature students who see foundation years as a ‘second chance’, the opportunity to study in a dedicated fashion with like-minded people who are fully committed to a programme of study. By contrast, returning mature students report that the equivalent FE experience can be compromised by the greater immaturity and lack of focus/motivation displayed by some younger FE students.
The consultation document fails to grasp the common essence, but also the significant diversity, across foundation year provision, within both Welsh and English HEI provision. Individual foundation years are carefully designed by HEIs at local level to meet the specific needs of students accessing particular courses at their institution, taking into account the particular admissions criteria being applied to this specific student group. This specificity means that prior attainment (whether measured by the quantity or quality of prior educational or other equivalent experience), curriculum content, delivery and assessment methods, are all tailored to the particular institutional context, in a way which is not possible in an FE college or school. Entry requirements, curriculum delivery and on-course attainment – both at UG foundation year level and at all subsequent levels of degree study – are all monitored, evaluated, reviewed and where appropriate revised in line with standard HE quality assurance and enhancement processes to ensure the best student outcomes are achieved. As a result of this careful tailoring, even within the same HE institution, it is not uncommon to find very different entry requirements operating depending upon the nature, aims and design of the specific foundation year programmes offered.
Foundation year students in general experience a better and more successful transition from foundation year to further degree level study because of the tailored nature of their foundation year experience and the greater familiarity they have developed within their chosen HEI. They develop confidence and gain an effective working knowledge in the use of all aspects of their institutional learning environment (campus layout, library and IT resources, virtual learning environments, travel infrastructure, associated accommodation etc.) as well as the many varied learning and teaching support resources available to them (academic and support staff and services, students union, co- and extra-curricular opportunities). For many widening participation students in particular, this opportunity to develop confidence and skills on campus is a critical part of their successful transition into HE, which cannot be replicated in smaller institutions where HE practices are not the norm.
Furthermore, because of their integrated structure, modes and location of delivery, Foundation Years are much better placed to help students develop those very specific study skills, familiarity with academic conventions, and targeted research, experimental, problem solving, and critical thinking skills, which are essential to success on the specific courses of which their foundation years form a part.
For all of these reasons, the experience of many institutions represented within the Foundation Year Network suggests that retention and attainment at foundation year level, progression rates to subsequent levels of UG study, retention and attainment in terms of final degree outcome for the specific types of entrants admitted to these individual foundation programmes, are significantly better than that achieved by equivalent students entering via the level 3 alternative pathways alluded to in the consultation paper.
The consultation document suggests that funding students on foundation years ‘would appear to substantially increase the cost of provision to Government and the student’. This assertion can only be tested by making a direct comparison between achievement at level three or on foundation years, progression rates into/within degrees, and the ultimate degree attainment of students following these alternative pathways. As noted above, these data do not currently exist at a national level – and would be extremely difficult to collect given the significant diversity of provision both within HE and FE institutions – which means the best current measure has to be that of the individual institutions themselves. Recognising these significant methodological challenges, however, the Foundation Year Network would be very willing to play an active role in any research commissioned by the Welsh Government which set out at a national scale to measure the costs and benefits of HE foundation years relative to any alternative access pathways.
Internal data collected as part of the review of ongoing foundation year provision at a number of HEIs represented with FYN suggest that students who commence their studies on an integrated foundation year are more likely to progress and achieve more highly at subsequent levels of degree study than students entering HE at level 4 who have completed BTECs, Access to HE Diplomas, or other alternative forms of level 3 provision as a means of accessing. FYN suggests that it is primarily for this reason that many HEIs have continued to operate the foundation year model over many years.
To the extent that foundation year provision within HEIs is growing – in both England and Wales – this most likely reflects a combination of factors, chief amongst which may be the demonstrable success of the foundation year model at individual institutional level compared with other alternatives, in combination with the clear decline in appropriate alternative provision in many parts of the FE sector. In the latter respect, the massive reduction in provision of adult learning in England and other parts of the UK is well documented, which can also manifest itself in significant variability in the opportunities available to study in different subject areas (including, for example, a significantly more limited social science and humanities provision in some areas).
FYN strongly refutes the suggestion implicit in para 16 that foundation years, as one key tool of widening access in many HEIs, are ‘… really just a particular form of recruitment’. To the contrary, foundation years have been in operation at many institutions for up to 40 years, during which time they have been proven again and again to be an effective tool in enabling the successful transition of particular student groups into HE and, as such, are offered in the best interests of those students, rather than simply to satisfy any particular short-term recruitment agenda.
In the ‘increasingly competitive higher education landscape’, HEIs cannot afford to see overall degree attainment drop (a key performance indicator for prospective students reflected in many ‘league tables’), so the continued existence and expansion in FY provision is a proxy measure of their success in raising attainment effectively and – when viewed in the context of a whole degree (rather than as a stand-alone year) – demonstrates their overall cost-effectiveness relative to other alternative provision.
By accepting non-standard entry students onto many of their foundation years, HEIs also risk lowering the overall average grade tariff for their institution (another proxy measure for ‘quality’ used in league tables). Rather than a straight ‘recruitment tool’ therefore, foundation years are much more likely to be viewed and employed by individual HEIs in England and Wales as an important and effective tool to widen access. This is a point which has been clearly noted by the Office for Fair Access in England, who now actively encourage HEIs to consider what they are doing to widen access for mature students, including through connections with the Foundation Year Network.
FYN also disagrees with the consultation document’s treatment of ‘conversion courses’ (para 12), when it suggests ‘… the challenge of achieving the usual standard of attainment for entry on to a degree course in a subject to which the student has no prior exposure in a single academic year seems great, particularly so for those students whose prior attainment is likely too weak for entry to undergraduate study.’
This analysis is flawed in two key areas. First, a successful HE career crucially requires the development of self-directed learning and critical thinking skills, and an attitude to learning, which is about the quality of thought and approach, and the depth of student learning, rather than being about the breadth of coverage within a particular curriculum. In this respect, a carefully constructed curriculum which is designed to develop student skills and to articulate effectively with subsequent years of degree level study, can be delivered very effectively in a single year when situated within an HE context.
We agree, however, that it may be much harder to achieve this same outcome for students studying for a single year on many alternative pathways delivered in FE and colleges. This is another argument, therefore, for the relative cost-benefits of an intensive, immersive integrated foundation year approach to HE transitions for particular student groups.
Second, the notion that a student’s ‘prior attainment is likely too weak’ (see also paras 9-11), demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the student attributes looked for by HE admissions staff when considering individual applicants. Entrants to foundation years generally do not have the same paper-based entry qualifications required of entrants directly into subsequent levels of undergraduate study. Nevertheless, they must all demonstrate the academic ability to succeed at and beyond foundation year level – whether attained via prior educational achievement, work-based learning or life experience – and the awareness of subject area and preparedness and motivation to succeed which will enable them to negotiate a challenging transition into HE study.
Because of the scale of the challenge involved in making a successful transition, foundation year admissions tutors are always careful to assess each individual applicant’s likelihood to succeed on an HE based course and, where in their academic judgement the applicant is not yet sufficiently equipped, they will often suggest alternative pathways, including level 3 study in the FE sector where this is relevant and available.
FYN can provide a range of examples of institutional approaches to admissions, including entry requirements, if this would assist the Welsh Government further in understanding the complexities and specificities of FY admissions practice.
Question 2 – Which of the four proposals do you think should be implemented? Why?
Proposal 25a (‘do nothing’) should be implemented.
This is the most cost effective policy option when assessed in terms of the retention, progression and achievement of students entering HE via foundation year routes rather than via the alternatives alluded to in the consultation document. This is particularly true of those students entering HE from ‘hard to reach’ widening participation backgrounds, including many mature students who have been failed by alternative forms of provision in the past.
Proposal 25b (‘a reduced level of fee and/or maintenance support’) would create the worst of both worlds, since by undervaluing and underestimating the true costs of providing an effective preparation for successful HE study (whether in an HE or an FE context), this policy approach would inevitably encourage the underfunding of foundation year level delivery relative to other levels of HE provision, when the reality is that working with students at this level is necessarily more intensive, in terms of the contact hours required, initial support needs of many students, and the need to keep cohort and/or class sizes small relative to some subsequent levels of HE provision. As the consultation document itself recognises, the withdrawal of maintenance support would also have hugely detrimental effects since students’ living costs do not reduce simply because they are studying in one context or another.
As the document also identifies, Proposal 25c has little obvious policy justification. Proposal 25d, on the other hand, would not – as the document claims – mean that ‘… [w]idening access activity would operate as usual’. To the contrary (see 4 below), this option would very likely have a devastating impact on the chances of some Welsh-domiciled groups (e.g. mature) to access a significant number of HEIs in both England and Wales.
Question 3 – Do you think our definition of foundation years at paragraph 30 will capture the type of provision we have discussed?
To base a definition of courses that will/will not be funded upon the notion of ‘rais[ing] the attainment of an individual to that required to begin a degree programme’ misunderstands the nature of the foundation year as an integral part of the degree programme itself. It also misunderstands the significant amount of ‘levelling’ – or ‘bringing to the same starting point’ – which takes place in the first year of most undergraduate programmes of study, regardless of their designated level within FHEQ. Indeed, many students progressing from their foundation year into subsequent levels of their degree often find themselves significantly better equipped to succeed than many of their peers entering via traditional A level or other alternative level 3 routes.
Furthermore, there is no satisfactory methodology for directly comparing outcomes at foundation level, A level or other alternative level 3 routes, so it is not possible to exactly establish the ‘level’ of provision which equates to foundation year level 0. Indeed, many FY practitioners would argue that level 0 necessarily operates across three levels of the FHEQ (from 2 to 4), depending upon which aspects of the development of skills, knowledge and understanding, and which areas of the curriculum, are being focused upon at any point in time.
The experience of study on a foundation year is qualitatively so different from that provided by any other forms of transitional study into HE that any definition limited solely to notions of ‘attainment’, ‘level’ and ‘additional period of study’ will never capture effectively what is, and what is not, most appropriately and successfully delivered in an HE context and what in an FE context.
Question 4 – What do you think the impact on widening access will be if the Welsh Ministers were to cease support for these courses? Do you think any particular groups would be disadvantaged by this policy? What are the characteristics of the people taking these courses?
If Welsh ministers were to cease support for these courses they would instantly narrow access to a range of HEIs for some of the most disadvantaged potential students. This would particularly be so in the case of a number of ‘selective’ institutions in England and Wales which require high UCAS entry tariffs as part of their standard entry requirements.
Groups particularly disadvantaged would include any mature students wishing to access HE provision locally in Wales, and Welsh-domiciled students offering ‘non-standard’ entry qualifications (including a range of alternative level 3 college qualifications) who wish to access HE provision in England. Table 1 seems to suggest the latter group constitutes up to a third of all those funded students under consideration here.
By developing a policy which forced students without standard entry qualifications back into the very level 3 system which can be argued to have already failed them once, these students are more likely to be failed again, or to choose not to risk repeating the same negative experience a second time – by not re-engaging with further or higher education at all.
In addition to mature students, other groups likely to be directly disadvantaged by such a decision would include younger students who underperformed at level 3 due to a range of extenuating circumstances, care leavers, students with special learning needs which may have been left undiagnosed or under-supported at school or college, and students affected by a range of mental health difficulties. All these groups can benefit from the longer and more supportive contextualised transition into HE which foundation years provide.
Ceasing support for foundation years may also differentially affect students from the groups listed above who have a particular subject interests which is not currently effectively supported or developed outside of HE provision.
Question 5 – We have asked a number of specific questions. If you have any related issues which we have not specifically addressed, please use this space to report them.
The Foundation Year Network (FYN) was formed in 2007 and draws its membership from academic practitioners with an interest in Foundation Year teaching enhancement issues. It currently has 120 members working in 35 UK HEIs, including three major HE providers in Wales.
The Network’s objects include to represent, promote and support ‘good practice in foundation year provision’ and ‘diversity of provision for entry into higher education’.
Collectively, FYN’s members work with thousands of past and present foundation year students, on a diverse range of programmes, many of which have been in existence for twenty years or more.
As noted in a number of places in our response, the Network would welcome the opportunity to contribute to any future research the Welsh Government may wish to commission to better understand the relative value of the different alternative pathways into and through HE which have been considered in the current consultation.
All members of the Network have been invited to contribute to this response, which deliberately deals with the nature and place of foundation years in the HE sector generally, rather than with the specific context of individual foundation years.
We understand that a number of Welsh HEIs will be submitting individual institution-specific responses which are better placed to discuss individual programmes in Wales where this is appropriate to do so.