Acquiring the skills that will land you a job

The new foundation degree is a valuable innovation for students and employers, says Steve McCormack
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The Independent Online

Foundation degrees are now moving into their fourth year, and the number of participating students has risen to 24,000, six times bigger than at the outset. The level of involvement of employers has also grown, as firms grasp the opportunity to help shape courses aimed at producing a more highly skilled workforce.

Foundation degrees are now moving into their fourth year, and the number of participating students has risen to 24,000, six times bigger than at the outset. The level of involvement of employers has also grown, as firms grasp the opportunity to help shape courses aimed at producing a more highly skilled workforce.

But a report by the Foundation Degree Task Force, handed to ministers this month, concedes that the award is not yet embedded into the higher education system. It calls for more to be done to convince employers that it's worth committing time and money to help design and implement specific degree programmes.

There are now nearly 1,000 foundation degrees on offer at over 100 institutions. Subjects vary enormously, but many are linked to a major employment sector, such as health, education or construction. The work-based learning, combined with conventional taught lessons, can be completed either on a full-time two-year course, or part time over three years.

Among the institutions boasting the highest participation is the University of Central Lancashire, formerly Preston Polytechnic, where, following this month's enrolment, nearly 1,200 students are registered on foundation degrees - around five per cent of the national total. A large chunk of the teaching and learning takes place away from Preston, however, at 23 further education colleges, including Carlisle, Wigan and Burnley.

One of the most popular choices is the forensic science course, offered at three centres. Forty students, many of whom are mature, have just begun their first year. The programme coordinator, Allison Jones, says a good grounding in science is vital for the course; at least one A-level in a science subject, or equivalent, is the minimum entry requirement. Alongside classroom study, students acquire experience of hands-on forensic work in the simulated crime scene facilities of the department. "Employers say the training students get in simulated conditions is better than if they were going round with a real scenes-of-crime officer," explains Jones.

Pro-Vice Chancellor Patrick McGhee is enthusiastic about the programme, but thinks expansion will be achieved nationwide only if the Government invests more money. "You can't do foundation degrees on the cheap," he warns.

Teesside University has also embraced the new award, and runs 24 foundation degrees serving 900 students. Most courses are centred at the university's partner colleges across the Tees Valley and south-west Durham. According to Lynn Parker, the director of Education Partnership at Teesside, it underlines the commitment to widening participation and distributed learning. "It isunlocking potential in people who never thought these opportunities were available to them," she says. "And it helps employers up-skill their workforce."

But foundation degrees are not the exclusive preserve of the new universities. Bath University, established in 1966, has 150 full-time students on its books on foundation degrees, many of which are rebranded and re-designed HNDs.

One of the most eye-catching, and popular, courses is the brand new degree in addictions counselling. Fifty students are enrolled on the course, which is run at the headquarters, near Salisbury, of the Clouds charity, which helps alcohol and drug addicts. Most of the students are already working, in one way or another, with addicts. The foundation degree will boost their knowledge and qualifications, and enable them to increase their level of responsibility and efficacy in this type of employment. This in turn will benefit their employers and society as a whole.

And that's just the sort of educational and employment niche that foundation degrees were designed to fill.

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