Languages and Foundation Degrees

Author: Tim Connell


The Subject Centre held an open meeting to discuss Foundation Degrees on 11 July 2003. Following the meeting, Professor Tim Connell (City University) wrote a report on Languages and Foundation degrees.

This article was added to our website on 11/09/03 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Table of contents


City University was an early proponent of foundation degrees. The Foundation Degree in Public Service Management is about to go into its third year. Opthalmic Dispensing is also running and one in Health is also planned, along with our Foundation Degree in Public Service Interpreting, which is due to start in January 2004. They fit in with the University tradition of vocational and professional education, and build on the close links we have with employers in the area, a consequence of an active programme of part-time and outreach courses.

Foundation degrees appear repeatedly throughout the White Paper on Higher Education. They are in fact described as “the main work-focused higher education qualification” (1). Regional Development Agencies will be working on their development (2), and employers will be expected to play a role in their design (3). Government organizations will also be involved – the NHS intends to offer a foundation degree pathway for anyone who has worked within it for five years or more (4). They may also be used as routes into B.Ed qualifications for teachers, and as a pathway for higher level teaching assistants (5). This would seem to indicate that non-traditional organizations may be able to award foundation degrees (KLM and Rover are both cited) (6).

New structures are needed for new systems. At City a cross-University academic board is being set up to cover the generic courses and to advise on the development of new programmes. Proper qualify assurance systems are paramount, the more so because of a general suspicion of non-traditional forms of delivery. And it is important to bring expertise in novel areas together in order to encourage best practice. Management issues also arise because of co-operation between partners; there is a need for institutional agreements to cover all aspects of collaboration – well in advance of launch.

Outline of Foundation Degrees

A foundation degree requires 240 credits over 2 years. It should be practice-orientated, vocational and practical in intent. Preferably there should be a work-based element, to establish the link between theory and good professional practice. On graduation students will be able to put the letters FdA or FdSc after their names (7).

Collaboration is expected between university, employers and a third party (normally in FE, and the concept of franchise is particularly mentioned (8). These degrees are crucial to the Government's 50% target (9). The bulk of HE expansion is intended to come through foundation degrees, though recent surveys suggest that most students still want to go for the traditional three-year Honours route (10). The recent House of Commons Select Committee on the Higher Education White Paper also draws attention to this and also advises that the 50% target and the growth of foundation degrees should not be linked (11).

An Honours route, of course, needs to be in place for Year 3 but that is not as crucial now as originally thought (the key phrase is “greater flexibility locally”!) (12) The QAA Benchmark suggests a link through to qualifications offered by professional and other educational bodies as well as a link to Honours (13). Margaret Hodge, in written evidence, has indicated that the timescales for taking the Honours route have been removed, and that the Honours route will not be crucial for funding (14).

Other elements of the original thinking are changing: the emergence of the university colleges as a new polytechnic sector is part of the same issue. (Geographical spread of course will be easier to achieve with the new institutions which could be an important point for access.) Entry requirements can be more flexible, as indeed should be the modes of learning (15). Non-traditional students are likely to benefit most from the new courses. APEL and APL are therefore important.

There are also opportunities for some original thinking in terms of delivery: modules on work-based learning, or the use of a variety of assessment methods rather than traditional sit-down examination.

A financial memorandum is crucial: who does what must be spelt out at an early stage. The White Paper promises a streamlining of funding regimes to make collaboration between FE and HE easier (16). This is to be welcomed, given some scepticism on the part of one of the expert witnesses called by the Select Committee, who refers to the “nonsense”, like being under two different assessment inspection regimes, not having access to capital funding (17). A further query for FE partners is the likely fate of HNCs and HNDs in the face of competition from two-year foundation degrees. An expert witness expressed concern about the response from employers and the Select Committee recommends that they should stay “unless and until it is clear that they have been made redundant by foundation degrees” (18).


Additional funded places will be available for foundation degrees rather than honours degrees from 2004 (19). £21m will be spent on development and incentives in 2004-05 and £32m in 2005-2006, so large sums of money are going to be made available (20).

Funding for the FdPSI will be at Band D, though enquiries are being made about being placed in Band C along with other language degrees. There is no start-up budget for establishing links or marketing although the White paper does indicate that funding levels will be reviewed to ensure that these adequately reflect the relative costs of delivery compared with other forms of higher education (21). There is unlikely to be any additional funding now, unless it is targeted towards dissemination of good practice, for example. But there is money for bridging courses, to slot in between completing the foundation degree and taking the Honours path. (6-8 weeks in the summer.)

Will students have to pay fees? Our expectation is that most of our applicants will probably be exempt anyway, but there is a specific reference in the White Paper to foundation degrees being priced competitively (22). In addition to which, bursaries are likely to be available which could be used either for living costs or to offset fees. £10m is being made available in 2004, and double that in 2005 (23). The QAA Benchmark suggests that students will be able to work because of flexibility within the foundation degree – “earn and learn” in fact (24).

Will Foundation degrees attract overseas applicants? Possibly not in themselves, but they might if the Honours routes are made clear. (There is also a complication in that foundation degrees will not fulfil first cycle requirements under Bologna) (25). They could be a way of covering some of the aspects of a foundation course in the subject, but the work-based component of the degree programme could be an obstacle in terms of lead-in times for getting jobs before the start of the course, or experience of that employment sector in the UK (26). The cost of work-based learning should be borne in mind: industrial visits are time-consuming and directed at individuals. Travel time will have to be allowed for and may have to be costed in.

A close examination of the sections of the White Paper indicate that a number of items (referred to above) are still not fully clear for those institutions who wish to develop a foundation degree programme. It is significant that the last paragraph of the Select Committee report looks forward to the “detailed” proposals for the development of foundation degrees which, according to the Secretary of State, “should be available in the summer.” (27)

Foundation Degree in Public Service Interpreting (FdPSI)

This particular activity is built on ten years of experience in the area, going back to grants from the Nuffield Foundation to launch the DPSI. City has collaborated over a period of five years with Praxis Community Projects, the centre for the settlement of refugees and asylum seekers in Bethnal Green, originally with support from the European Social Fund. There has been a gradual move away from open recruitment to tailor-made programmes for particular authorities and organizations.

The plan now is to launch in January 2004, in collaboration with Praxis, and SOAS. The latter's interest stems from widening participation and increased contact with the kind of groups that Praxis works with, plus teacher training in non-traditional languages. City’s particular contribution is based on the knowledge of the domains (Legal, Health and Local Government) that we have built up over a decade, plus a wide range of professional contacts.

We have funding for 28 FTEs (having bid for 36) and intend to offer three to four start-up languages, based on employer response and perceived need. We intend to widen the range of languages over time, and have structured the course so that there are strong generic elements for all students, to offset the cost of running language-specific workshops in mother-tongue development and interpreting skills.

We anticipate strong focus on building up learning skills as well as the core for the subject. Although we are asking for standard entry requirements to degree course we anticipate (from experience with previous courses) that students will have an eclectic range of qualifications and experience to offer. What they may not have experience of is study at this level within a UK context. We also want them to be able to reflect on their own practice and to build up a body of knowledge ranging from the organisational structures they may find themselves working in through to matters such as the ethical issues that working interpreters may face.

Foundation degrees related to languages: a checklist

Public Service Interpreting is an area where we believe that the foundation degree concept meets individual and market needs quite neatly. But what other areas could be applied to languages? There are various factors to bear in mind:

Clear-cut purpose
Vocational/professional in intent.
Availability of a work-based component.

Target market
Professional area.
Local industries.
Type of student.

Which languages?
Local demand from students.
Local needs of employers.
Availability of tutors.

Specialised requirements
native speaker competence/professional skill/teaching ability/availability

Which student?
Non-traditional. Local. Returners or 18+?

Employer links
Practical experience. Type of employer.
A development away from sandwich courses and work placements.
The "abroad" question.
Is there a role for a foundation degree which focuses on languages? Would it be better to go for languages within other programmes, such as tourism, or business courses with an export slant?
Communication skills the question.

Next steps

“Foundation Degrees Forward” – a network of universities that will lead the development of foundation degrees. (White Paper section 5.23.)
White paper on Higher Education:

QAA web addresses:

Foundation Degree qualification benchmark:

Foundation Degree review handbook:

A Foundation Degree Day is to be held at City University on 24th October:
(With transferability funding from HEFCE)
Contact Dr Yvonne Hillier

Foot notes

  1. DfEE The Future of Higher Education page 36.
  2. Ibid. page 36
  3. See section 3.18
  4. See section 3.19. An expert witness reporting to the recent Select Committee on the White Paper casts doubt on this, however, referring to the foundation degree as “an extra degree of flexibility which is welcome.” House of Commons Select Committee on Education and Skills Fifth Report, published 23rd June 2003 paragraph 93. See also the THES dated 11th July 2003 for an interesting report on the Select Committee. To be found at
  5. White Paper Section 3.19 again.
  6. Ditto.
  7. See White Paper section 5.14. And note the small d!
  8. Section 5.21. The FdPSI team at City University are considering the use of franchise as a means of providing a wider range of provision for public service interpreting nationwide.
  9. See Executive Summary of White Paper page 11.
  10. See THES 4th July 2003.
  11. Select Committee paragraph 221. The University of Birnmingham refers in evidence (paragraph 92) to a likely preference for “internationally respected, universally understood, tried and tested, honours degrees. One of the recommendations (paragraph 109) expresses concern at the credibility of foundation degree being undermined if they are linked too firmly with the 50% figure, which is questioned anyway as a matter of policy (paragraphs 101-106).
  12. In White Paper section 3.21.
  13. QAA Benchmark paragraph 19. If this is the case then programme designers should seek the appropriate accreditation from a professional body. See paragraphs 21 and 22. Sector Skills Councils may also be involved. See paragraph 26 at:
  14. The Minister also refers to an “articulation” between foundation and honours degrees “for those with the desire and ability to benefit”. Select Committee, paragraphs 94 & 95.
  15. White Paper paragraph 24.
  16. White Paper, page 57.
  17. Select Committee paragraph 98.
  18. Sir Richard Sykes (paragraph 62); recommendation at paragraph 67.
  19. White Paper section 5.15
  20. See Page 66.
  21. Page 48
  22. Section 5.15.
  23. Section 5.18.
  24. QAA qualification benchmark paragraph 16.
  25. Ditto paragraph 6.
  26. Section 5.26 of the White Paper refers to the Prime Minister’s Initiative but does not explain how or why international students would opt for the foundation degree route.
  27. Select Committee paragraph 110.