Careers for the high flyers

The Government's plans for universities unveiled yesterday include a big increase in the number of people taking foundation degrees. But the question remains: will students sign up? Lucy Hodges interviews the minister Margaret Hodge
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When you next board an aeroplane say a prayer for Kingston University and its amazing foundation degree in aircraft maintenance engineering. Students are falling over one another to sign up for that course because they know it will lead straight into a well-paid job. When you fly, remember that your life will be in their hands.

When you next board an aeroplane say a prayer for Kingston University and its amazing foundation degree in aircraft maintenance engineering. Students are falling over one another to sign up for that course because they know it will lead straight into a well-paid job. When you fly, remember that your life will be in their hands.

Margaret Hodge, the higher education minister, is hoping that this degree – as well as the broadcast digital technology course at Ravensbourne College and the chemical technology degree at Teesside University – will be prototypes for the huge expansion in new two-year vocational qualifications outlined in the White Paper on higher education today.

"We're determined to ensure that most of the expansion to reach the Prime Minister's target of 50 per cent of young people going into higher education should be focused around foundation degrees," says Mrs Hodge. "It's those sorts of qualifications where there is a particular gap in the labour market that are needed. This is a big challenge. It means universities have got to make much closer links with local business and regional development agencies to design relevant degrees."

The Government is hoping that it will be able to withstand criticism that foundation degrees are inferior to longer degree courses and that it is thereby dumbing down higher education. Mrs Hodge intends that the courses will be no less rigorous than three-year academic degrees.

And despite widespread scepticism, ministers are also hoping that the expansion will work and that students will sign up for the new qualifications. To help students along, it is giving means-tested bursaries to the disadvantaged. Moreover, to ensure that the universities have an incentive to lay on the two-year degrees and don't pooh-pooh them, it is devoting all the additional money for higher education places in the spending review to foundation degrees. Only those institutions that really don't need the money or feel that the new qualifications are not for them will steer clear of them.

Foundation degrees may be an idea whose time has come. Announced by David Blunkett in his landmark Greenwich speech at the dawn of the new millennium, they have been running as a pilot for the past 16 months.

In the first year 4,000 students enrolled, followed by 16,000 this year. The expansion should add another 40,000 to 50,000. Although they got off to an uncertain start because universities were unable to include them in their prospectuses through lack of time, the evidence is that the best work well. Professor David Robertson, of Liverpool John Moores University, is evaluating the programmes, and says: "So far, so good."

The big question is whether students will enrol. Some of the pilot foundation degrees may have taken off, but others have flopped. Roger Brown, the director of Southampton Institute, wonders whether foundation degrees will work across the board.

Professor Ivor Crewe, the vice-chancellor of Essex University who becomes president of Universities UK this year, is a fan of the new qualification, but points out that not all the new courses introduced at Essex have been equally successful. A degree in landbased studies recruited well; another in transport logistics did OK; but a degree in computing and IT was not as successful. "I think the key is to make the foundation degree into a qualification that almost inevitably leads to employment, in particular a local employer," he says.

According to Professor Robertson, the question is why anyone would want to undertake a foundation degree when for not very much more money they could acquire an honours degree. He urged Mrs Hodge to reduce the tuition fee for foundation degrees to make them more appealing. She rejected the idea on the grounds that some universities might fiddle the system by rebranding the first two years of some honours degrees as foundation degrees, which would defeat the object of the exercise.

The answer to Professor Robertson's question is that people want to do foundation degrees because they lead to jobs. So far they have been a niche market, flourishing in specific areas where a gap in skills has been identified and a course developed with employers. "For something that is relatively new, in the areas where it has gone well it has gone surprisingly well," says Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality at the Association of Colleges. So the omens are looking good and Mrs Hodge has some influential supporters.

Professor Crewe, one such supporter, says, "They are a good idea because there are quite a lot of students who would prefer to study for two years rather than three, not least for financial reasons, and who would like to do a qualification that is more closely integrated with the world of work."

The new degree could solve another problem – the nation's lack of better-skilled intermediate workers in management, design, computers, engineering and health. Britain – or specifically England and Wales – has been bad at educating people at the intermediate level compared with its competitors, Germany, France and the USA. We are brilliant at churning out people with degrees who can analyse and make connections, but we are not so good at training people in the technical skills needed for a whole range of jobs, from engineering to the creative industries.

"We have a shortage of people at the supervisory, intermediate level, between NVQ 3 and 4, which is where A-levels meet higher education," says Richard Brown, the director of the Council for Industry and Higher Education. "To be a plumber you need a NVQ 3 qualification. Where does a person go if they want to be an advanced plumber? They would get on to a Higher National Diploma."

The problem is that Higher National Diplomas and Higher National Certificates have not always been seen as a resounding success. Like the two-year Diploma of Higher Education in the Seventies, they failed to gain a reputation that could stand against the honours degree. The aim is to try to capture the public imagination with the new foundation degree.

Mrs Hodge is talking about establishing a quality framework in which, over time, HNC and HNDs would become subsumed. She is also considering setting up a task force to get the new qualification out on to the road. Eventually she will have to think about a campaign to promote it. The key, according to Tom Wilson, the head of the universities department at the lecturers' union, Natfhe (National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education), is to persuade employers that the foundation degree has real cachet and that it is worth paying for their employees to acquire the training that it provides.

The real test may be whether universities and employers can make common cause. Then, if they can persuade students to register, they are well away.

'This degree is not for the faint-hearted. you have to be dedicated'

Harry Enfissi can't find words to describe his enthusiasm for the foundation degree in aircraft maintenance engineering run by Kingston University and KLM UK engineering, a Dutch company. Aged 39 and an American married to a British woman, he says he has always been looking to improve himself. "I looked for the qualification I needed to get ahead," he says. "This degree is not for the faint-hearted. It is a career path and you have to be dedicated. But given what is happening in the airline industry following September 11, the competition in the marketplace is going to become so fierce that you need this extra advantage."

His degree will enable him to acquire a coveted JAR-66 licence, the new European standard qualification, and get a job paying £25,000 to £30,000 a year, with the promise of more to follow. The workload is heavy but the teaching is excellent, he says. Students spend the first semester at Kingston and the second at KLM in Norwich, working on real aeroplanes.

The man who set up the programme at Kingston's end is Professor Andrew Self (left), who is also pro-vice-chancellor for enterprise. Seeing that the new European standard was coming in and that there was an acute national shortage of aircraft maintenance engineers, he got together with KLM and applied for 37 degree places from the Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce). In the event, demand was so great that 128 people enrolled, all funded by Hefce. This year course numbers grew to 250 students.

Professor Self has nothing but praise for Margaret Hodge, the Higher Education minister. "She has been terrific," he says. "She really has her head screwed on. She wants kids to get jobs and wants them to do good for the nation."

Now he is expanding further, in concert with Bristol College and Newcastle Airport. An aircraft hangar in Newcastle is being fitted out with classrooms and a 737 has been commandeered. It is hoped that Tony Blair will open the new centre. Next year Professor Self hopes to expand to Wales.

"My wastage rate is zero," he says "Around 10 per cent of students fail their exams but they retake. They don't drop out." His methods could be applied across other sectors, he reckons. The way to do it is to to send into schools students who have been on a course and who have jobs lined up. That will pull the applicants in, he says.