What is a Foundation Degree and What Are They For?

There’s a lot more to higher education (HE) than bachelor’s degrees and postgraduate study beyond. In fact, when you look into the study and qualification options available post-18, you might be taken aback by just how much choice there is.

Certificates, diplomas, awards, foundation degrees, foundation routes – it can all be a little bewildering. What’s the right option for you and your aspirations?

In this article, we’ll focus on a type of HE qualification that arguably causes the most confusion amongst would-be students – foundation degrees.

What is a Foundation Degree?

Foundation degrees are one of the newest qualifications introduced into the UK higher education system. They were launched in 2000 specifically to target identified skills shortages in the labour market.

In terms of formalities, a foundation degree is rated at Level 5 on the UK’s Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF). That puts it two levels above A-Levels (Level 3) and one level below a bachelor’s degree (Level 6). In fact, you will sometimes hear foundation degrees described as ‘two-thirds’ of a full degree.

Other Level 5 qualifications include Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) and Diplomas in Higher Education (DipHEs).

What a Foundation Degree is not

One of the reasons foundation degrees often cause confusion is because of the similarity in name with so-called ‘foundation routes’. More correctly, and more usefully as far as a description goes, foundation routes are referred to as bachelor’s degrees with a foundation year.

Their purpose is to provide a route to completing a bachelor’s degree for people who lack the usual entry requirements, or perhaps need extra support because they are international students for whom English is a second language. Tagged on before the degree course proper starts, the foundation year brings students up to speed with the academic rigours required to study at degree level.

By contrast, a foundation degree is a standalone qualification in its own right. Although it is possible to turn a two-year foundation degree into a ‘full’ degree by then taking an additional ‘top-up year’, that is not the primary purpose. While foundation years offer alternative routes to obtaining a degree, a foundation degree is a distinct qualification pathway.

What is a Foundation Degree for?

Once they appreciate the difference between a foundation year/route and a foundation degree, the question many prospective students naturally ask next is – what is a foundation degree for? Why not just study a full degree?

Bachelor’s degrees are not for everyone. People may be understandably reluctant or unable to commit to three years’ full-time study, longer if they study part time. There may be little or no need to aim for a bachelor’s degree to fulfil their career aspirations, a qualification at a slightly lower level might be more than enough.

A better question is therefore perhaps – why choose a foundation degree, rather than another type of Level 5 qualification like an HND or a DipHE?

This is another source of confusion. As we mentioned, foundation degrees were introduced with a clear remit to develop skills that employers felt were lacking when school leavers and graduates entered the workplace. This puts them squarely in the vocational qualification bracket.

But HNDs are also very much vocational qualifications. What’s the difference? Why choose one over the other?

The best way to understand it is to think about different styles of learning. HNDs take a highly practical, hands-on, ‘learn-by-doing’ approach. They put a lot of emphasis on work experience, on applying your learning in real-world situations, on evidencing your progress as you go rather than formal exam-like assessments.

While foundation degrees are widely available in much the same subject areas as you can take an HND in, the approach to learning is different. They are vocational as far as the subject matter goes, but they borrow more from academia in terms of the structure and style of learning and assessment. That said, there are still hands-on, practical elements. So you could say that foundation degrees offer a balance of theory and practice, academic rigour study applied to vocational objectives.

Who is a foundation degree for?

Foundation degrees can appeal to a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons. As mentioned earlier, for some people the idea of signing up for three or more years’ study is either impractical or just plain daunting. They want a solid, rigorous, respected qualification that will help them get ahead, but one that involves less of a commitment in terms of time and money.

Foundation degrees attract a lot of mature and returning students looking for their first HE qualification. The motive for returning to education is often to allow people to advance their careers, or set them up for a career change. The vocational focus of foundation degrees fits in well with that. Particularly if you want to retrain to work in a different field, the ‘learn as you work’ approach of a HND isn’t suitable. You need a course that you can fit around your current work and other commitments.

Foundation degrees offer a lot of flexibility, with options to study through evening classes or at weekends. Part time, you can still complete a foundation degree in three years.

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