Memorandum submitted by Universities UK

 

Summary

 

1. Universities UK wishes to submit evidence on Clause 17 of the Bill, which contains provisions giving the Privy Council the power to grant further education institutions (FEIs) Foundation Degree awarding powers.

 

2. This note sets out Universities UK's concerns about the impact of this power on:

 

i.) The status and value of this new higher education qualification

ii.) Student opportunities to progress from further to higher education;

iii.) Existing and future partnerships between higher education and further education institutions.

 

3. Universities UK believes improvements have been made to the Bill during its Lords stages; this note indicates where we believe further amendments need to be made.

 

Universities UK's concerns

 

4. The measures in the Further Education and Training Bill will constitute a major change in degree awarding powers. If the Bill goes through as it stands, the FE sector will gain the ability to design, deliver and validate an HE qualification with no input from the HE sector whatsoever. This is a particular anomaly as FE institutions currently do not have the power to award even major FE qualifications such as GCSEs or NVQs, but rely on outside awarding bodies, so they will be able to award an HE qualification but not those FE qualifications which form the bulk of their provision.

 

5. Universities UK are strongly concerned that the provisions in Clause 17 will have a number of unintended consequences:

 

Foundation Degrees are still new qualifications (introduced only in 2001-02) with a fragile reputation - this move risks destabilising progress towards embedding the qualification with potential students and employers just when good progress is being made;

It risks undermining the higher education status of Foundation Degrees and may lead to a decline in demand both from students and employers, and a reluctance on the part of HEIs to offer them. Far from supporting growth, which has so far been impressive (since introduction in 2001- 02 student numbers have grown to 60,000 in 2006-07), this move to a new model may have the opposite effect.

HEIs have worked very hard to secure international recognition of the Foundation Degree, and believe that this move to the FE sector will cause the UK difficulties in the Bologna process.

Progression to higher qualifications may be adversely affected, as HEIs will not be, as they are at the moment, involved in the design or delivery of Foundation Degrees. The move risks undermining excellent progress that has been made towards building ladders of progression, for example through Lifelong Learning Networks;

Many higher education institutions (HEIs) have invested heavily in building collaborative partnerships with FE institutions, beyond simple validation services. These relationships may be put at risk if HEIs and FE institutions then find themselves in competition with each other.

 

6. In addition, we believe that the some of the arguments in favour of introducing this power do not stand up to close scrutiny. For example, we simply do not agree that the design and validation process of Foundation Degrees is unnecessarily bureaucratic, and have many examples of HEIs designing quality Foundation Degrees with Further Education Colleges and local employers in timescales as short as 3 months.

 

7. It has also been argued that HEIs charge unreasonable amounts for the services which they provide. The cost of university validation for a Foundation Degree delivered in an FE institution varies between institutions and is dependent on the specific arrangements needed. For example, in some cases the agreement is that the HEI will be very involved in:

 

providing academic and administrative support and advice for course development, review and validation;

providing access to staff development and training;

providing access for students to services such as libraries;

providing academic and administrative representation at examination boards;

production of student certificates and transcripts;

shared responsibility for disciplinary procedures and ultimate responsibility for student complaints and appeals, and

absorbing un-filled student places (so that the FEI is protected from the financial repercussions).

 

FE institutions are able to negotiate and compare the arrangements in place with different HEIs. Universities UK has gathered examples from a range of HE institutions, some of whom make a financial loss on these partnerships - but still support them due to their commitment to widening participation.

 

8. Another criticism is that some FE colleges have been frustrated by either the lack of flexibility, or of expertise in a particular subject area, on the part of their partner HEI. Universities UK believes that, given that there are 80 potential partner HE institutions with which FEIs can choose to collaborate, this is not in itself a sufficient reason to make a radical change to Degree Awarding Powers. Foundation Degree Forward provides a service that brings together potential partner institutions to facilitate effective collaborative arrangements; we believe it would be better to support their work than to introduce this risky new model of HE validation.

 

9. The suggestion that further education is closer to employers than higher education is simply not true; we have collected many examples of Foundation Degrees developed with employers where one of the primary attractions for the employer was the involvement of the HEI. The figures on employer support demonstrate that the proportion of part-time students at FEIs that have their fee paid by their employers is about half the level as at HEIs.

 

Progress during Lords Stages

 

10. A number of amendments have been made to Clause 17 of the Further Education and Training Bill during its passage through the House of Lords. These amendments:

 

Mean that the Privy Council can grant FE institutions Foundation Degree awarding powers for an initial six-year 'probationary' period without the right, during that period, to authorise other institutions to deliver their Foundation Degrees (franchising).

Allow the FE institution to apply for the powers to be renewed on an unlimited basis, following the probationary period.

Create a requirement that there should be a review of the operation of the new regime after four years.

 

Whilst these amendments have gone some way towards allaying anxieties, Universities UK is still concerned that the vital progression link between HE and FE will be damaged and that FE institutions' unlimited ability to franchise Foundation Degrees (i.e. allow other institutions to deliver Foundation Degrees on their behalf) could pose a substantial risk to quality.

 

11. In addition to these amendments, the Government has published the Draft Criteria for Foundation Degree Awarding Powers. These can be found at: http://www.dfes.gov.uk/publications/furthereducationandtrainingbill/docs/DraftCriteriaForFoundationDegreeAwardingPowers_revised14May2007.pdf. It is essential that these Draft Criteria are not watered down, as this would create a two tier system of Foundation Degrees. The Draft Criteria compliments the Foundation Degree qualification benchmark, owned by the Quality Assurance Agency on behalf of the sector, which outlines the essential academic features of this qualification. http://www.qaa.ac.uk/reviews/foundationDegree/benchmark/FDQB.asp

 

12. During the passage of the Bill through its Lords Stages, the Government made the following changes to the guidance for applicant FE institutions, in response to concerns expressed during debate:

 

FE institutions now require a minimum of four years experience delivering HE at an equivalent level.

An application for Foundation Degree awarding powers will not be considered unless the FE institution has consulted its students on the issue.

 

13. In addition, the Government has brought forward a further amendment to make it explicit that a pre-requisite for successful application for Foundation Degree Awarding Powers will be that the institution in question has secured articulation arrangements to higher-level study. It is an essential feature of the Foundation Degree, as set out in the qualification benchmark, that there is clear progression to further study, normally a bachelors degree with honours.

 

Universities UK's view on progress during Lords' stages

 

14. While we remain of the strong view that it would be preferable not to extend Foundation Degree Awarding Powers to further education institutions, we recognise that the changes made during the passage of this Bill through the House of Lords go some way towards addressing our concerns.

 

15. We continue to believe that further progress needs to be made on the following issues:

 

Progression: While the Foundation Degree can act as a stand alone qualification, there should be a guarantee that students who choose Foundation Degrees should have opportunities to progress to further qualifications, normally a bachelors degree with honours, if they want to. We would like to see the Bill amended accordingly.

Franchising: We have welcomed the Government amendments which allow the Privy Council to limit the power of further education institutions to franchise provision for the first six years. However, Universities UK is not convinced that it is right to allow such institutions to franchise their courses after the initial six-year period, as it poses a substantial risk to quality.

 

As the Quality Assurance Agency for HE notes, "the assurance of quality and standards in collaborative arrangements... creates particular challenges for awarding institutions in the management of the potential risks associated with the complexity of such arrangements." (Code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education. Section 2: Collaborative provision and flexible and distributed learning- September 2004, para 16). FE institutions will be taking on primary responsibility for the quality and standards of their own higher education qualifications for the first time. We believe that allowing unlimited franchising, to other FEIs, or private providers and overseas, is a step too far.

 

We also believe that that it would not be in the interests of students, employers or the Government if Foundation Degrees became a signature FE qualification, with a few large institutions franchising widescale provision in smaller institutions. HEIs have worked hard with FEIs to develop the reputation of Foundation Degrees as a quality higher-level vocational qualification. The franchising proposal within Clause 17 could remove, at a stroke, all links between HE and FE in delivering Foundation Degrees.

 

We would therefore like to see the Bill amended to exclude the possibility of FE institutions franchising Foundation Degrees in perpetuity.

 

June 2007