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12 July 2007 : Column 1677
3.45 pm

There are about 300 providers of foundation degree courses delivering about 1,600 courses. They are each unique, distinctive and have a well established character and culture of their own. That is good. Variety of provision gives choice to students and a wide range of specific qualifications and skills for employers to draw upon. I hope that the vocational aspects of further education and foundation degrees will be cherished and valued as highly as academic degrees.

However, if the progression from further education degree courses is not secure, and if the awareness of course connections or qualification progression is not clear, that goal may not be achieved—hence our tabling of amendment No. 24. We want a further education sector that is dynamic and flexible and responds to employers’ needs. Foundation degrees are both a staging post for more advanced qualifications—not necessarily just university degrees but other professional qualifications—and a final destination in their own right for people entering vocational careers. In a way, that is the beauty of the foundation degree and of this sector—a beauty that requires maintenance in the form of our amendment.

Clause 19 amends section 76 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. It enables the Privy Council to give foundation degree-awarding powers to further education institutions. At present, it merely requires the Privy Council to see a statement of intent from a further education institution in order to grant the power to award degrees. That is perhaps a missed opportunity to secure the confidence of students and employers in these newly granted foundation degrees. We are not sure why the opportunity has been missed to make the criteria more stringent, more overt and clearer. As many concessions have been made in the Lords, and as Ministers have listened carefully to the arguments and changed the Bill accordingly, we are not sure why they are not listening as regards tightening the criteria for award-granting powers.

I am sure that the last thing any hon. Member wants to do is unnecessarily to risk the confidence that people have in the status of foundation degrees. Yet surprisingly, on this most important and controversial clause, there appears to have been a lack of consultation. The proposal did not appear in the White Paper or in the Leitch report, nor did it appear with any clarity in Foster. It seemed to spring up at the last minute as if by magic. That is why it needs amendment. Course progression may be jeopardised through a failure to consult and to shift, if only marginally, the Government’s position.

Today’s further education colleges provide their graduates with foundation degrees from well recognised universities and other institutions. If there is a shift to further education institutions awarding foundation degrees, there is a risk that the status of the award, as perceived by students and employers, may go down. Foundation degrees have pulling power with employers, certainly with Rover, KLM, the Department of Health and one or two others. They are almost foundational, as it were, to their recruitment process and to people’s career progression. Nevertheless, it appears from what I have read in the Hansard reports of Committee and other debates that the Government are unwilling to bend or concede at all on this particular point.

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Although I and all hon. Members know that it is not the intention that the quality of the foundation degree should be undermined in any way, I fear that without a little more attention to this point, that may well be the case. In the same vein, paragraph (a)(iii), which our amendment would add to proposed new subsection 2B, would place a duty on institutions to “advertise courses and qualifications”. It does not prescribe exactly how it should be done; it merely places a duty on them to do so. That would be good all round because it would increase the awareness of the benefit of foundation degrees.

The relative value of qualifications is already difficult to assess and we must not make it ever more difficult by having a plethora of different awarding bodies, creating uncertainty about the robustness of the award being made. We want to create an environment in which students and employers have a clear understanding of the relative value of qualifications. The Minister may say in response to our amendment that some of its provisions will be incorporated in the articulation agreements. It may be said that it does not need to be included in the Bill because it is implicit that in the advertising of courses the quality of the awarding body would be upheld. I have neither heard from the Minister, nor read in the transcripts of the previous debates, a clear case from the Government as to why it is not necessary to ensure the advertising of career progression through qualifications, and the Government do not appear to have made it clear why it is necessary to avoid placing a responsibility on institutions to secure in writing details of career progression from the foundation degree that they offer.

Sarah Teather: Amendments Nos. 24, 6 and 7 deal with two things we discussed extensively in Committee: progression arrangements from foundation degrees and franchising. I acknowledge that the Government have moved considerably on both those points, through changes made in the other place, amendments introduced by the Government in Committee and reassurances we got from the Minister during that process. Amendment No. 24 appears to be a helpful addition, and I would be interested to hear the Government’s response to it. They moved considerably on this point, recognising the concerns that were shared by hon. Members throughout the House that foundation degrees ought to provide enough flexibility for students to progress to higher education or professional qualifications, and enough flexibility to ensure that they are not boxed in and forced to do one or the other—it can be a stand-alone qualification. The amendment would appear to include a number of things that the Government seem willing to concede, according to guidance and comments on the record. If the Minister wishes to reject it, I shall be interested to know why.

It is helpful to have something written from institutions to state that they have ongoing progression routes between FE and whatever professional bodies or, according to the course, HE institutions they are working with. One of the things we debated at some length in Committee was the tendency for those arrangements to be quite fluid, and for them to break down. The concern for a student going through the foundation degree stage is that they do not want to end up in a situation where those arrangements have
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broken down, and the safeguards do not come into play for a year or two. After that, students will certainly have left that institution. The safeguards are there for a particular individual and not the system as a whole. I await the Minister’s response on that before deciding how we shall respond.

The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) has tabled two amendments on franchising. Again, we debated that at length in Committee. The power to award foundation degrees is substantially different from that to franchise. In Committee, I asked why the Government wanted colleges to be allowed to franchise, and I was never entirely satisfied with the answer. I understand all the arguments about awarding foundation degrees but I never felt confident about the Government’s response to the question of why we needed to allow colleges to franchise. The Minister said that it was because he did not want a two-tier system but we already have a multiple-tier system. Higher education institutions franchise the power to award foundation degrees. Further education institutions can now award such powers. We will end up with a system of three or four tiers if we include the proposed new power.

However, in Committee, the Minister reassured me that he would change the guidance on foundation degrees so that, after the probation period, the decision about whether colleges will be allowed to confer foundation degrees will be separated from the decision about whether they can franchise other colleges to use the same power. I was greatly reassured by that, especially when the Minister then wrote to all members of the Committee to repeat the assurance. I look forward to reading the revised guidance because that assurance dealt with most of my concerns. He never quite answered the question about why he wanted franchising in the first place. I hope that will be clear when he replies to the hon. Member for City of Durham. However, the decision to separate franchising from that to award foundation degrees assuaged most of my concerns.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I tabled amendments Nos. 6 and 7 to obtain clarification of two specific matters. I appreciate that we had a detailed discussion on the subject in Committee and I do not want to detain the House unduly. First, I simply wish to check whether the process involved in a specific FE college being able to award foundation degrees is separate from the process for franchising.

Secondly, I want to consider the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education review of transnational programmes because it should include foundation degrees and it may have implications for franchising. I wondered how the Department would take that on board and apply it to new franchising arrangements.

I understand that the amendments as they are currently drafted would prevent FE colleges from franchising foundation degrees. That would thus significantly strengthen the amendment that was passed in the other place. However, I tabled the amendments because the higher education sector remains concerned that, unless the Government adopt
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a cautious approach and are rigorous about the circumstances in which FE colleges can franchise courses, some—probably only a few—FE colleges could franchise and take on the role that the whole higher education institution sector currently fulfils, thus taking HE out of foundation degrees. I am not sure whether that was the Government’s intention or whether it is assumed that a few colleges will be allowed to franchise in limited areas, leaving a significant role for higher education institutions in foundation degree programming and delivery.

I emphasise that it is one thing to validate one’s own programmes for delivery and quite another to validate programmes for franchising. The QAA acknowledges that in its guidance when it states that franchising is much more complex. It has different rules and procedures for franchising arrangements. External examining and drawing up programmes for external examiners is new to the FE sector. I recognise that there is a six-year rule in place, but the Government will have to be careful to ensure that FE colleges have those procedures in place when they eventually get to franchising and that they have shown, through the experience of operationalising their own foundation degrees, that they are able to check what is available in other colleges that are delivering the programmes for them.

I should like the Government to reassure me that they will adopt a rigorous approach. I accept that they demonstrated that in Committee, but I return to the general question that has perhaps not been answered: why are we flagging up the potential to franchise now, before we have even had FE colleges validating their own programmes and delivering them? Perhaps that should be kept under review as we have the experience of FE colleges validating their own programmes in practice, which would obviously mean that the six-year rule would also be kept under review.

4 pm

Mr. Boswell: I begin by commending my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) on his maiden appearance at the Dispatch Box. It would be fair to say on that form that he has undoubtedly already acquired a foundation degree, and we look forward to progression to even greater things.

I make that point, flippantly but I hope graciously, to underline the serious point behind amendment No. 24, which I warmly endorse to the House. That point is that a foundation degree has two purposes. It needs to be a valid freestanding qualification in itself. If a foundation degree involves the active participation and enthusiasm of the vocational student and has been properly specified through the business framework, its fitness for purpose and the involvement of employers, it is likely to be successful. At the same time, a foundation degree is not simply a useful qualification, but a platform and springboard to progression. That is understood by everyone who has participated in these debates. The question is how we secure that outcome and the precise degree of specification that we require.

When I read the amendment, I saw that it was fairly prescriptive, but it is of course no more a departure of principle than the Government have already conceded in the Bill as drafted. The amendment is simply a
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refinement and intensification of those tests. That is right in the circumstances, because the exceptional factor about degree-awarding powers is that once awarded they are, for all practical purposes, broadly non-recoverable. It is very difficult to recall them by removing them. One can mediate them—indeed, one must mediate them—through the review period, which we have now agreed, and through the continuing attention of the quality assurance mechanism, which is also important. However, it is reasonable to say that we have to get over a high hurdle and then reach assurances.

One important aspect of that is that people should be able to move on, as well as to benefit in employment from the qualifications that they have received. Those two tests must be met continuously in relation to foundation degrees. My hon. Friend is therefore right on his general principle and I like the wording that he has come up with to offer assurances.

Then there is the admittedly separate issue of franchising. There is no doubt that in the past the concept has covered a multitude of sins—they might have been peccadilloes and in certain cases they might have been more than that. Franchising has always been a little bit less certain for a higher education degree-awarding institution than direct provision has, whether it is conducted in another country or through the medium of a further education college, for example. The process is less certain. If we are serious about quality assurance, we need to ensure that the process is just as certain, whether it is secured through franchising or through direct provision.

As somebody who is not averse in principle to outsourcing, I have no conceptual objection to the process being carried out through a variety of partnership arrangements, which is a perfectly sensible thing to do. Understandably, there has been some confusion between doubts about the quality assurance, which we must get right, and some kind of prescription of the level at which franchising should be exercised. That is perhaps behind the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods). I am not happy with the amendment in its present form, although I appreciate the hon. Lady’s motives. We should give the Minister an opportunity to reply to the House on these serious concerns about delivery, which we are all worried about.

If a college—an FE college or an HE college, it matters not—has met the qualifications, as improved by the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) in terms of progression, and if it is prepared to operate to the required quality standards, it should make no difference whether that is secured through a franchise. If there were doubt about whether the quality standards were being met because of the existence of a franchise, that would logically be a separate issue, but it would be unacceptable. It is right to expose this issue and to look to the Minister for an answer.

We have edged through a series of Government concessions, and had some rather good debates on this matter. Conceptually, I had some scepticism about the issue when I first came to it, because the idea was rather bounced on us. However, I have come to an understanding that it is right and proper, in certain defined circumstances and with the right assurances, to
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offer the opportunity for further education colleges to have the ability to award foundation degrees. I think that we have almost reached consensus on that. We now need to receive assurances from the Minister that we have really got this right, because the worst possible outcome would be to do this on the basis of misplaced generosity or of some slogan, without being able to deliver something that was genuinely fit for purpose and that met the needs and aspirations of our students and their future employers.

Jeremy Wright: It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), with whom I substantially agree. I join him in welcoming my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) to his new responsibilities.

I want to pick up where my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry left off, with a point about the assurances that I hope the Minister will be able to give us. I agree with the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) that what commends amendment No. 24 is its ability to deliver substantial reassurance to students who wish to take foundation degrees at institutions that have newly been given the power to award them. I accept that not every student taking a foundation degree will wish to go on and complete a further course of study, but a great many will. If this experiment—for that is what it is—is to work, it is vital that every student who receives a foundation degree from one of these institutions and wishes to go on to further study should have the maximum reassurance that they will be able to do so when the time comes.

I hope that the Minister will accept that there is a world of difference between an institution setting out what it proposes to do to arrange for the continuation of study, and actually making those arrangements. Those are two very different things, and they would have a very different effect on the reassurances that could be made available to students. Amendment No. 24 seeks to ensure that those arrangements will be made. My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) is proposing to strengthen the Government’s noble intentions in order to ensure that foundation degrees newly awarded by further education institutions will be successful and command the support and confidence of the students who take them. For that reason, I fully support what he has said.

Bill Rammell: I welcome the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) to the Front Bench and congratulate him on the measured and articulate way in which he advanced his arguments. Having said that, however, I fear that I shall not be able to agree with them quite as much as he might hope.

I should like to deal first with amendments Nos. 6 and 7, which, when taken together, seek to prevent the practice commonly known as franchising. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) raised this issue in Committee and she has acknowledged that I gave her a number of assurances during that debate. I reiterate today that the Government are certainly being cautious—and will be cautious—and that the process of quality accreditation is extremely rigorous. It is every bit as rigorous as the process for higher education institutions that award their own
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foundation degrees. I would also say that I bow to no one in my regard for the quality of universities and higher education institutions in this country. However, the higher education interest is not always synonymous with the overall education and public interest. That is at the heart of some of our debates.

As I said in Committee, we want to strike a balance between rightly wanting to encourage innovation, flexibility and responsiveness in the delivery of foundation degrees and ensuring that the highest quality standards are maintained. The proposed powers are enabling and it would be counter-productive to place permanent and inflexible restrictions on how they could be exercised. When my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham spoke on Second Reading, she pointed out the importance of avoiding a two-tier system in the awarding of foundation degrees. Placing permanent restrictions on the exercise of foundation degree-awarding powers would, in my view, create precisely that hierarchy, which is why we are right to avoid it. The implication of placing only limited trust in FE institutions that are granted these new powers would unquestionably lead to the branding of the qualifications that they award as second class. I hope that we all agree that that would be regrettable.

Sarah Teather: I still do not really understand the Minister’s point about the degrees being second class, particularly if we get rid of franchising. We discussed the issue in Committee, where I tried to explain that there were already a number of different classes of foundation degree. For example, there are foundation degrees that are validated by and delivered in HE institutions; foundation degrees that are validated by higher education institutions but delivered in further education institutions; and we now have further education validated courses delivered by FE institutions. Why, then, do we need further education validated courses delivered by another institution? It is not a matter of being second class: we already have three classes, so why do we need a fourth?

Bill Rammell: There are two responses to that. First, we genuinely want as much innovation and flexibility as possible in order to respond to the needs of students. Saying as an article of faith that it would be wrong in all circumstances for a very high-quality performing FE institution to allow franchising at whatever stage might restrict the dispersal of quality foundation degrees. That would be one cause for concern. Secondly, students might well perceive a diminution in the long-term credibility of their FE institutions if they were told that all the other institutions in all the other sets of circumstances were able to award their own degrees and to franchise, but that that did not apply to theirs. That would create a two-tier structure, which would not be to anyone’s benefit.

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