Foundation degrees: Learning by degrees

Foundation degrees  offer employees and employers the chance to provide learning that has a tangible outcome. Maybe that’s why hundreds of employers support them.

When the jobs market becomes tighter, many employees want to upskill or retrain, while employers want to be sure their people have all the necessary qualifications to do the best possible job in trying times.

Such was the backdrop to a recent conference that set out to highlight the benefits of foundation degrees to employers and explain how to develop more effective partnerships with academia.

A national conference on foundation degrees held last month was organised by Foundation Degree Forward (FDF), the national body that supports the development of work-based degrees.

The conference attracted a number of high-profile employers, reflecting the growth in the concept of foundation degrees, which now cover a huge range of subjects, in everything from interior design to health and social care.

These qualifications are essentially flexible ordinary degree-level courses, designed in partnership with employers, that provide a tangible result for learners and sector-relevant skills for businesses.

Deliver better service

Derek Longhurst, chief executive of FDF, thinks these partnerships between employers and higher education are becoming increasingly important, especially as economic times get tougher.

“I think employers need to look at how education and training can help the business to deliver a better service.

“All the evidence shows that employees who have experience of higher education are more analytical and can provide more solutions to problems in the workplace. Employers need people who can do the job and this gives them a route to achieving that,” he says.

The number of employers going down this route is now increasing and the appeal of the foundation degree seems to spreading beyond the public sector where it has already proved popular.

According to Longhurst, the key to success lies in making the relationship between employer and provider work effectively, which means getting employee engagement and high quality work-based learning in place.


“There needs to be a strong dialogue between the people who are designing a qualification and the employers. There’s always a genuine need for those planning the learning to know what the workforce needs are,” he says.

Longhurst says that both sides need to take time to ensure they build the right relationship because the way they both work will be alien to the other.

“I think even big employers can often find it difficult and confusing when working with higher education because it’s not something they are necessarily used to. In fact, there’s often a whole different language used.

“Both partners need to be flexible and have a very clear sense of the benefits they want to achieve. It’s about long-term partnerships and having a clear sense of direction,” he adds.

Drive the process

However, Longhurst is quick to point out that employers must also drive the process by setting out exactly what they need and want from the whole process.

“Employers should have a positive impact on designing the curriculum and mode of delivery they want,” he adds.

Network Rail has been offering foundation degrees since 2003, and HR director Peter Bennett says the money involved in getting the right skills has never been more important to businesses.

“In today’s very expensive education world, foundation degrees offer good value for money: that’s the bottom line. The actual cost of taking someone through a two-year programme is probably in the region of around £20,000.

“The cost of hiring a graduate is around £10,000, but then you have the two-year training programme on top. So this way we get somebody on board, up and running, making a contribution faster and at a lower cost,” he explains.


Dr Rosie Cox, programme director at Birkbeck College University of London, is closely involved in the design and delivery of foundation degrees. She thinks it presents a unique way of motivating staff to develop their skills and improve the way they do their job.

“Many of our students tell us they wouldn’t have done the course if it had been a traditional academic qualification. It lets them gain useful skills in a way that is focused on career development and qualifications.

“Having this opportunity has given people some real benefits as it’s been offered as a much more respected way of achieving skills development,” she says.

Cox’s experience again highlights the importance of a close working relationship between employers and universities and she says that businesses need to get closer to the design of courses.

“Employers need to talk to universities and engage with us more. When we design a foundation degree we really want to tap into what employers need. We know that employers desperately need more skilled people so we all need to engage more and design the type of foundation degrees that really deliver.

“We do a foundation degree for pharmacy technicians and that is working really well for students, private employers and the NHS. These employers have been really far sighted about the needs of business and their own employees,” Cox says.

Despite this, there is concern that not all businesses have the chance to tap into this success.

“Of course a lot of this is down to money and time. That means it’s mostly the big employers who can afford to get involved but these sorts of companies don’t make up the majority of the UK economy,” she says.

Get SMEs involved

FDF’s Longhurst concedes that more needs to be done to help small and medium-sized firms (SMEs) get involved and says the organisation is looking at courses going through regional bodies or chambers of commerce.

“Everybody acknowledges that it is a significant problem. Getting more SMEs involved is part of the agenda we’re now working towards,” he says.

Kevin Downey, a director at development firm Oxygen Learning, says the value of foundation degrees is in the mutually beneficial way they work.

“A lot of clients tell us they want a certificated programme that is acknowledged within the field and gives employees something tangible to take away. Foundation degrees definitely do this but I think they suffer from a perception problem. I don’t think employers realise exactly what they can offer,” he adds.

Downey thinks that more work needs to be done in highlighting the win-win nature of a qualification that can deliver transferable, academic skills relevant to careers and with government backing.

Case study: Tesco

Britain’s biggest private sector employer has been working with higher education to develop a foundation degree that could improve business performance and drive up leadership skills across the retail sector.

The new foundation degree is now available to the whole retail industry following a pilot scheme last year involving 40 Tesco staff.

The supermarket giant was part of an FDF-led consortium that set out to design a qualification which could improve business performance and provide transferable skills and knowledge to staff.

The sector employs fewer graduates than most industries and also has a high turnover of staff so the qualifications can prove useful for both employers and staff.

David Potts, retail and logistics director at Tesco, says working in partnership with other organisations, including Manchester Metropolitan University, had led to a very focused foundation degree.

“Students are already telling us how it meets their individual needs. The degree has been designed by business, for business, and Tesco is proud to be continuing to shape the future of training for the sector,” he says.

What is a foundation degree?

Foundation degrees are qualifications that combine traditional academic study with workplace learning. They have ordinary degree-level status but are designed specifically with employers to help provide qualifications that give staff the relevant knowledge and skills to excel in their own particular industry.

The government now hopes to get 100,000 people studying for foundation degrees by 2010. There are currently 72,000 students enrolled on foundation degree courses and last year saw strong growth with numbers increasing by 25% on the previous year.

The idea is to let employers design courses that fit the needs of their business and then choose who participates.

Delivered by colleges and universities in partnership with employers, they can help drive up skills, boosting productivity and creativity.

They usually take two years to complete and enable students to continue in education by studying for an honours degree.

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