It’s well known that graduates can find it hard to get a foot on the first rung of the employment ladder. What’s less well known is that there’s a relatively new type of qualification specifically designed to equip students for a particular area of work, thereby bringing that first job a little nearer within reach.
It’s called a foundation degree and is roughly equivalent – in academic terms – to two-thirds of a full degree. It’s aimed at people in a number of situations, including school-leavers with A-levels, and those already in work, who want to enhance |their qualifications, particularly if they went straight into the workplace after leaving school.
Each course has been designed with input from employers, and the areas covered vary enormously. To give just a tiny flavour, courses currently on offer include animal nursing, computer-aided design, dental technology, floristry and quantity surveying. You can find out about them |in the same way as traditional degree courses, by searching on the UCAS website
Although some of the older, more prestigious, universities offer a small number of foundation degrees, the vast majority are run at newer (former polytechnic) universities and colleges of further education.
At Macclesfield College, for example, around 240 of its 3,000 students are on foundation courses at any one time, spread across the areas of engineering, business, education, sport, graphic design and public services.
Despite the relatively small student numbers, the college considers its foundation degrees are a very important part of its overall offering.
“Foundation degrees are very much about developing feet-on-the-ground skills directly related to a vocational area,” explains Jackie Shaw, higher education manager at the college. “Foundation degrees have done a brilliant job in helping students – particularly mature students who didn’t access qualifications when they were 18 – to acquire skills and knowledge to help them through the glass ceiling.”
Shaw also argues that having foundation degrees based at smaller colleges, rather than large universities, can be an advantage. “The tutor support for students at a small college is definitely a strength. Everyone knows everyone, and the course leader is likely to know the individuals at the local employers,” she says.
Macclesfield College exploits just such local contacts on the foundation courses in aircraft maintenance engineering. Many of the air industry firms based at the nearby Manchester Airport are involved in delivering some of the practical elements of the course, and there’s even a 19-seater jet aeroplane in a hangar at the back of Macclesfield’s campus.
A key feature of the foundation degree landscape is flexibility. Study can be full or part-time; entry requirements frequently
allow workplace experience to take the place of exam passes; and there is usually a smooth route to convert a foundation degree into a full honours degree for those who want to enhance their qualifications further.
Jan Maiden, now in her late thirties, has benefited from all of these flexible elements. Having left school at 16, she found her way into administrative posts in health-service bodies in the North-west. This led to a job with a genetics organisation called Nowgen, which is a partnership between the Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Manchester. But she realised she needed formal qualifications to exploit the promotion potential at her new employer. So she enrolled on the business management foundation degree at Macclesfield College, and studied part-time, only having to leave work and attend college one afternoon a week.
It proved just the stepping stone she was seeking. On gaining her foundation degree, she was promoted to a management position, and she’s since upgraded to a BA honours degree.
“The foundation degree isn’t just a piece of paper,” she concludes. “I’ve acquired some fantastic skills and knowledge that are taking me forward in my current role and my future career.”
She’s also significantly increased her earning potential, more than justifying the outlay on tuition fees.
At Macclesfield College this year, foundation degree tuition fees have been set at £1,310 per year, and around the country fees vary between £1,000 and £2,000 a year, depending on the course. All foundation degree students are entitled to the same mix of grants and loans as their counterparts studying for traditional degrees.