Published: 05/08/2004, Volume II4, No. 5917 Page 26 27

Foundation degrees are the backbone of NHSU training. Stella JonesDevitt looks at their value and asks where they can lead

Getting to grips with the changing nature of vocationally oriented academic awards is not easy for hard-pressed health and social care managers.

The commitment by NHSU to using the foundation degree as an essential learning pathway for unqualified staff means that it is here to stay.

But is a foundation degree a proper degree? How is a foundation degree different to a national vocational qualification or higher education diploma?

And how long does its take and what does it lead to?

First, it is important to understand that the degree is classed as an 'intermediate' award, given when participants have gained 240 higher education credits, equivalent to two years' full-time honours degree study.

Although it falls short of the 360 credits required to gain a UK bachelor's degree, the foundation degree is a nationally recognised award in its own right, integrating academic and workbased learning through close collaboration with employers and programme providers.

Entry requirements are often less stringent for foundation degrees than full honours degrees - recognising that many participants will be mature students or may not have undertaken formal academic study for some time. For many people, the degrees offer a flexible way into studying at a university or higher education institute.

Most foundation degrees can usually be accessed by two years' full-time study or by part-time study over three to four years.

They provide a distinctive mix of academic work and workrelated learning. As vocationally focused higher education awards, they equip students with the skills and knowledge relevant to employment, and a route to lifelong learning and opportunities to explore further qualifications.

This contrasts with the NVQ structure, which provides a competency-based framework for accrediting mainly existing skills in the workplace without further theoretical input.

There is also a marked difference between foundation degrees and higher education diplomas - while both share the same higher education credit rating, there is no compulsion for diplomas to have any work-related focus.

Foundation degree graduates can use their qualification as a 'stand-alone' award, giving them enhanced skills within existing roles or demonstrating preparation and potential for new employment. Alternatively they can use it to count towards entry to profession-specific training routes via bridging programmes and further study.

Foundation degree programmes are particularly appropriate for unqualified 'associate professional' staff and those working at assistant or support worker levels.Workrelated learning is central to any foundation degree. In each programme the academic knowledge and understanding reinforces and supports development of vocational skills.

Foundation degrees in health and social care are subject to appropriate subject and sector benchmarks, the NHS knowledge and skills framework and national occupational standards, thus ensuring currency and relevance to the workplace.

Given forthcoming Agenda for Change implementation, foundation degrees that are explicitly linked to the framework may offer tangible routes for workforce development and personal motivation.

To enable your organisation to gain maximum benefit from the vocational focus of foundation degrees, employers should provide time and resources (as negotiated in learning contracts) for work-related study components. This usually involves a member of staff acting as mentor during the work-based learning period.

Experience thus gained will then apply to a range of work situations. In addition, organisations can also support placement opportunities for people seeking careers in health and social care.

Typical foundation degree graduates should be able to demonstrate:

knowledge and understanding of well-established principles in their field of study and the way in which they have developed;

the ability to apply underlying concepts and principles outside the context in which they first studied, and their application to the work context;

knowledge of the main methods of enquiry in their health and social care area and ability to evaluate critically the appropriateness of different approaches to problemsolving and application to workplace context.

use a range of techniques to analyse information critically and propose solutions in the workplace;

effectively communicate information, arguments and analysis to specialist and non-specialist audiences in the work context;

undertake further training to enhance skills and develop new competences to enable them to assume responsibility within their organisation.

Standard fees for foundation degrees are currently set at£1,125 per year of full-time study.

Therefore the maximum total cost incurred directly by the participant is£2,250.

Part-time costs are pro-rata.

Clearly health and social care managers need to factor in backfill costs, study leave and mentor time and preparation.

Regional workforce development confederations and employers sponsor some programmes directly. Outside the workplace, foundation degree students are eligible for support towards fees and loans through standard local education authority eligibility criteria.

Many higher education institutes have student finance teams that can provide details of bursaries, individual learning accounts, hardship grants and further information about potential funding sources.

The expanding level of these programmes suggests that foundation degrees are here to stay - as does the NHSU policy commitment, outlined in Learning for Everyone (2002), that 'anyone working for the NHS who does not already have a qualification will have the opportunity to follow an NHSU learning pathway towards the attainment of a foundation degree... within five years of joining' .

Explicit links to employer involvement mean that managers have a vital part to play in preparing the health and social care workforce for the demands of the 21st century.

Stella Jones-Devitt is principal lecturer, curriculum development of foundation degrees and other healthcare programmes, at York St John College's School of Professional Health Studies.