Who wants a sub-degree?

Foundation courses are unlikely to appeal to employers or students. Lucy Hodges reports
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The Independent Online

Will the creation of places on new two-year foundation degrees succeed in attracting students to higher education and help Tony Blair to meet his target of 50 per cent into university-level education by 2010, as the Government hopes? The answer, according to a new piece of research published yesterday, is no.

What fuels higher education is demand, not supply, says Libby Aston, of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a new think tank. The Government policy that has the greatest effect on student demand is the number of young people passing two or three A-levels, she says. That sets them up to want to go to university, and to be qualified for it. "It is in this area... that Government can have greatest effect on demand for higher education," says the research.

It could be argued that people will opt for the new vocational foundation degrees because they will be the only spare places available. But recent history suggests that this won't happen, she says. That's because youngsters don't necessarily want to undertake sub-degrees. They would rather do three-year honours degrees.

The HND, another sub-degree qualification, has not had a happy life. Fewer and fewer young people are opting to take it. "It is not clear that there is major demand for this type of degree and this type of qualification, either from students or employers," says the research. "That does not mean that foundation degrees cannot be successful, but it does mean that to be successful, policies will have to change existing patterns of demand."

What will determine the number of students in higher education will be population increases and the attainment of young people in schools, according to Libby Aston. The best estimate is that demand for undergraduate places will rise by 180,000 to 250,000 by the end of the decade. Of these, 150,000 will come from population growth, and the rest from more people entering higher education who would not have done previously. "Whether demand turns out nearer 180,000 or 250,000 in reality depends on whether the growth in A-levels seen in the past two years proves to be a one-off increase or the beginning of a trend."

If undergraduate demand is as high as 250,000, the Government won't have to worry. It will more or less reach the 50 per cent target.

But Libby Aston questions whether it is legitimate for the Government to try to encourage students into certain tramlines - the sub-degree route - if there is more demand for traditional three-year degrees than can be met. "To do so by constraining supply to a particular form of provision, in the absence of student demand for that provision, might be tantamount to refusing higher education paces to well-qualified students."