Underpinning success

Confused about foundation degrees? Well don’t be.  Antony Adshead explains why all employers should be deeply committed to getting involved

This year, the Government intends to double the number of people studying for foundation degrees. That will mean about 20,000 people participating in these courses by the end of this year, compared to about 9,500 in 2003.

The coming months will be a test of whether the foundation degree scheme will gain momentum, but if the experiences of those employers who have taken their chance with the new scheme are anything to go by, it looks like being a success.

But what is a foundation degree and can it be useful to your organisation?

When the current Labour administration came into office in 1997, it found a situation where the market for technical roles was expanding while the pool of suitably qualified candidates was shrinking. And the Institute for Employment research predicts that there will be 800,000 new jobs in technical roles by 2010 – a faster growth rate than most other occupations.

But while Labour has fuelled a massive increase in the numbers of honours degrees, these are not meeting the need for these technician-level skills. Meanwhile, the existing qualification for technical staff – the HND – has been suffering a decline in student numbers. Some believe that it does not provide some of the practical skills necessary for today’s labour market.

The foundation degree was therefore devised to bridge the gap between specialist knowledge required for particular industries and traditionally broad-based academic knowledge usually gained by higher education students.

Foundation degrees are a two-year vocational qualification that are recognised in their own right, but can also count as two-thirds of a full honours degree, which can be achieved if the student goes on to do a third year.

They can be full- or part-time depending on the employer’s need and are designed to give employers or groups of employers a say in how the degree is structured so they can be tailored to business needs.

Foundation degrees have achieved broad backing in their initial phases. They have been recognised by employers as providing skills that existing courses of learning did not.

Anne Lindsay, senior policy adviser on learning and skills at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), says foundation degrees have great potential. But she warns that employers need to be careful to ensure that they meet their needs and that adequate resources are committed to them once underway.

“We see foundation degrees as having potential,” she says. “What’s not clear at the moment is interest from employers across the board – it needs to be more consistent.”

While in some cases single companies, such as BMW (see case study, right), can shape a foundation degree to meet their specific needs, companies without such extensive resources need to co-operate with others in a similar position to design the courses.

Lindsay says the sector skills bodies and trade associations can play a role in making it easier for businesses to become involved with others who lack the resources to single-handedly shape a foundation degree.

In such cases, local consortia of businesses and education institutions can join forces to create degrees that fit the requirements of companies across the same sector, as with the experience of chemicals company BASF in Teesside (see case study, below).

Whichever way your company becomes involved there is a significant overhead in time and resources that need to be found if foundation degrees are to be a success.

“For a company to decide whether foundation degrees are right for them is dependent upon their skills needs,” says Lindsay. “A skills audit will help them find out what skills are needed. Then they can decide whether a foundation degree fits their need.

“It is a big commitment. Time and expertise is required and it takes an HR professional away from other tasks. A good relationship with the higher education institution is essential for building a high-quality course. But if you have helped to shape the degree, it can provide the skills you are looking for.”

Case study: BASF

How BASF joined forces with other businesses to develop the chemical technology foundation degree

European chemicals company BASF had for some time recognised that there was a shortage of chemical engineers in the UK. So, together with Teesside University, the company took the decision to work alongside other local companies to build a nationally recognised qualification that would provide staff that could immediately make a positive impact within the workplace.

The foundation degree in chemical technology is a good example of how much influence an employer can have on designing a course, to ensure that students get the skills they need to do the job. Two of BASF’s senior chemists were involved in developing the syllabus for the degree at Teesside University, alongside peers from other chemicals companies.

Kevin Wilson, HR manager at BASF Middlesbrough, is enthusiastic about the link between academic study and the hands-on skills on the course.

“The good thing about the foundation degree is that it provides a link between the course of study and the practical application of knowledge at work. In contrast, for example, the NVQ is nearly all practical,” says Wilson.

“It improves the level of knowledge among the workforce and enables them to troubleshoot in a way that was not possible before. Previously, people could only work from existing knowledge, but now they are bringing wider theoretical knowledge to bear on their practical skills.

However, Wilson is clear about the risks for a business contemplating involvement in foundation degrees.

“Companies need an understanding of what foundation degrees are all about,” he says. “There is some greyness in understanding, with some seeing them as a new type of HND. I wouldn’t compare them to anything that exists because they marry practical workplace experience with theoretical knowledge.

“It has meant some overheads for the organisation. We have given full financial support to students and, where possible, allow time off to study. This is something that has to be thought about as we are a shift organisation and sometimes overtime has to be arranged to cover [for absence].”

Tips for HR departments considering  foundation degrees

  • Look at where they need new competencies and skills and see if there is a foundation degree programme that provides the skills needed
  • Work closely with educational institutions to ensure the course fits your organisation’s needs
  • Have a champion of the foundation degree programme in the HR department to ensure project momentum is sustained
  • Ensure adequate support for those doing the foundation degree. Financial assistance is a great motivator and mentoring by more qualified staff is a key method of support

What is a foundation degree?

  • Two years, full- or part-time giving training in:
  • Work-specific skills, relevant to a specific industrial sector or employer
  • Key skills such as problem solving and communication
  • Generic skills such as reasoning, professionalism and work process management

Foundation degrees are designed by:

  • Employers in public and private sectors
  • Higher and further education institutions

Engine plant, Hams Hall, Warwickshire is filling the skills gap and motivating staff

BMW has a strategic aim of raising the educational and skills level of employees, but due to the time structure of other education and training courses, it isn’t always easy to offer the right courses to the right employees at the right time. So BMW took the opportunity to have direct input into designing a foundation degree in automotive engineering in association with City College in Coventry.

Bob Lyall, training manager at BMW’s Hams Hall plant, says the involvement BMW was able to have in deciding course structure and content were attractive elements of the foundation degree.

For BMW, the foundation degree not only filled a skills gap, but gave staff the opportunity to learn new skills while in their current jobs, opening the way for career progression. Without this, career paths were often blocked, resulting in demotivation among some employees.

“The foundation degree filled a gap that we found after functional training on the shopfloor had been carried out. We have an ethos of continuous improvement and the foundation degree fits well with that. We often tell people what to do and when, but we want people to know why they are doing something. The foundation degree underpins their knowledge of the job and allows them to make improvements.”

Lyall has found that the practical elements of the foundation degree have had near-immediate benefits as students are able to apply lessons learned form study almost straight away.” This differs from the old HNC, which was much more academic,” he says.

A boost in staff motivation has been one of the major effects of the foundation degree at BMW. Lyall says the opportunity to study is open to most at Hams Hall and of those that do take up the course, levels of application are high because it is something that has to be volunteered for.

“The foundation degree is open to nearly all staff here – not necessarily technical or high-level staff, but all levels,” he says.” In many cases, it’s not necessary for their job, but it gives them more motivation. It gives them an opportunity to show what they can do and the opportunity to apply for better-qualified jobs. The employee is able to understand the background to the job and obtain a qualification they can use inside and outside the company.”

At the same time, there are risks and overheads in terms of resources.

“The risk is that the person will get the qualification and then leave,” Lyall admits. “But developing a good culture inside the company is the way to insure against that.

“It takes a significant amount of time to organise the course and the college has to be flexible in how it delivers. We run shifts and shift patterns can change, and shopfloor staff have to be able to get to college at times that suit their working patterns.”

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