Building on a solid foundation

Preparation years for engineering and science degrees are not just for A-level failures, says Stephen Pritchard
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The Independent Online
Since the recent reports that universities are admitting students who "flunked all their A-levels", foundation courses in science and engineering have been subjected to intense media scrutiny, mocked by Conservative backbenchers and become the subject of investigations by the Department for Education.

Many academics involved feel both angry and misunderstood. They say they are being pilloried for implementing a government policy dating back to 1987 that was meant to improve the number of students taking degrees in subjects such as engineering and physics.

It was a short step to extend the courses to applicants with an engineering background but who lacked the formal qualifications needed for a degree. The courses proved successful and the Government encouraged the polytechnics to include the foundation year in their core provision, according to academics involved at the time.

As Dr Michael Fitzgerald, then deputy principal of Coventry Polytechnic and now principal at Thames Valley University, recalls: "In all of these initiatives, one of the requirements was that we ran the project, monitored it and then we had to undertake that, if the project proved itself, we had to integrate it into our mainstream provision."

No foundation course tutor would deny that more students drop out or fail a foundation year than other university courses. For example, at Liverpool University, where you need at least a couple of Ds at A-level to get on to the foundation course, 20 per cent of the students drop out compared with 10 per cent on the first year of a science or engineering degree course. In some of the newer universities, up to half of the students on the foundation year are thought to drop out.

"It is often a substantial gamble because you have limited information about students' capabilities," says Dr Chris Ellis, foundation course tutor at the University of East London. "There is no doubt that the failure rate from the foundation course is often very high."

Initially, foundation course entrants also do less well on the degree course than students admitted with standard A-levels. But after the first year, the students even out; by finals, performance can narrow to just 5 per cent, one-fifth of a degree class. Many obtain respectable upper seconds.

While there is a consensus among tutors that students with poor A-levels perform better if they have taken time out before the foundation course, this is by no means a hard and fast rule. There are notable successes across the board.

Aged 33 when at the start of her engineering foundation course, Judith Bower was classed as a mature student. But she left school without A- levels, and studied ballet at the Royal Academy of Dancing in London.

Her career included teaching ballet in Malta and running her own ballet school in the UK before she decided to return to education. Mrs Bower studied maths, computing and study skills at the Open College before applying to the then Lancashire Polytechnic, now the University of Central Lancashire, for the foundation course. She was accepted and went on to the BEng degree in mechanical engineering, which included a year's industrial placement.

Mrs Bower gained an upper second, and came top of her year. She also won the Institution of Mechanical Engineers' prize for student of the year. She is now a full-time lecturer at the university, and is the foundation year course tutor this coming academic year.

The foundation course gave her the chance to try subjects she had not studied before, and revealed an aptitude for applied mathematics. "I felt this was what I wanted to do," she explains. "Without the foundation course, I would never have got here. I found to my amazement that I was good at it." Mrs Bower hopes to take a doctorate, when her lecturing commitments allow it.

Ken Fu entered the foundation course at the University of East London after failing his A-levels in maths, physics and biology. He admits he "wasn't into studying" but "started to brighten up" after the foundation course. He went on to the BEng course and then took a master's degree. He is now studying part-time for a PhD in soil mechanics at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. He hopes to use his PhD to find work on engineering projects in Hong Kong.

Nicola Gardner is a research assistant at Liverpool University; she is taking a PhD in fluid mechanics. Her A-levels were in maths, French, German and general studies; she hoped to study languages, but her grades (C, D, E, E) were too low. She entered the "year zero" course at Liverpool, going on to take a degree in engineering science and industrial management. After graduating with an upper second, she travelled for a year, before taking her post at the university. Without the foundation year, her best hope would have been re-sits, she believes.

It is doubtful whether any of these graduates would have had a second chance without the benefit of a foundation course. "It has been a success in attracting people into science and engineering degrees who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to enter," says Dr Ellis. "Such students also benefit from being in a higher education environment, in terms of having a year to get used to a great degree of self-dependence. This can give them the edge over someone straight from school."

WHAT ARE FOUNDATION COURSES IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING?

Foundation courses are a preparatory year at university, sometimes called "year zero", before a degree in science or engineering.

They were originally developed to "convert" sixth-formers who had studied arts and humanities, to compensate for the falling numbers taking science and especially maths A-levels. Most foundation courses now also accept mature applicants or those with lower than expected A-level grades.

It is inaccurate to say that foundation courses will always accept unqualified applicants. Admission is by interview, where tutors aim to sift students who underperformed in their exams from those who simply lacked the required ability.

Foundation courses do not guarantee a degree place; admission depends on performance. Sometimes as few as half the students go on to a bachelor's programme, though some may take a BTEC Higher National Diploma.

Next month, some 7,000 students will enrol on foundation programmes. Courses are run at the former polytechnics, and also at several of the "old" universities.

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