What is the intervention? Foundation year programmes are one-year introductory courses at the start of undergraduate university. They are designed to help students who may not meet the standard requirements for entry into university to develop skills and subject-specific knowledge, with the aim of increasing access to undergraduate studies, increasing course completion and raising attainment.
Evidence? Currently, we have little to no strong evidence on the effectiveness of foundation year programmes, although there is positive anecdotal evidence.
Should HEPs adopt foundation year programmes to widen participation? Since these programmes are high-cost interventions, providers should seek to embed causal evaluation to understand the extent to which they impact student outcomes – see the TASO evaluation guidance for more information on how to do this. Providers should also seek to build an understanding of which types of foundation year programmes are most effective and which students benefit from the most. Providers should also analyse foundation year students’ experiences of the programme, to gain a better understanding of the causal mechanisms impacting student outcomes.
What is this intervention?
Foundation Year programmes (FY) or foundation courses are designed to prepare students for degree level study, by equipping them with the required skills (i.e., methodological and subject-specific skills) and improving their confidence in their student identity. FY programmes aim to increase access to undergraduate studies as well as increase course completion rates and attainment.
In England, FYs are sometimes called ‘year 0’ because they are made to bridge the gap between school and university but do not lead to any specific award. Generally, FYs are not transferable between Higher Education Providers (HEPs). Some FY are advertised alongside a named course (e.g., Classics BSc (Hons) with Foundation Year). In other cases, students mainly enrol on a FY course at the same HEP they intend to take an undergraduate course in. Only certain universities encourage and support students applying to other providers.
Like FY programmes, Access to Higher Education Diplomas (‘Access Courses’) also prepare students for study at an undergraduate university, but they are mainly taught at Further Education colleges and more likely only require GCSE-level qualifications. By contrast, FY courses usually require A-level qualifications or equivalent (OfS, 2019). FY courses also have a similar age profile to undergraduate courses, with a minority of mature degree entrants (39% in 2017-2018) whereas mature students represent a large majority of Access Course entrants (69% of mature entrants in 2017-2018) (OfS, 2019).
FY courses are identified by the UK’s Framework for Higher Education Qualifications as level 3, similar to A-levels. They may be offered as stand-alone one-year courses or integrated into degree programmes.
In 2017, UCAS reported that FY programmes were available at 140 HEPs in England and Wales, including 15 members of the Russell Group. Business and administrative studies were the most common subjects for those on integrated FYs.
Similar programmes also exist elsewhere in the world. For example, some French ‘Classes préparatoires aux Grandes Écoles’ follow the same principles as English FYs. In South Africa, FYs in sciences and mathematics have been designed to address inequalities, specifically after the apartheid (Engelbrecht et al., 2014). They are commonly referred to as access programmes or academic development programmes. In Australia and New Zealand, FYs aim to promote HE for indigenous and disadvantaged students.
What is the target group?
Most FY programmes are targeted towards specific groups, such as:
- Individuals from groups underrepresented in higher education
- Individuals who do not have adequate academic achievement to access their chosen undergraduate course
- Individuals who are converting from one academic discipline to another, generally to a STEM subject, and need specific additional skills (e.g., laboratory skills)
- Mature students
A certain type of FY is aimed exclusively at international students. These programmes help students discover the British education system and sometimes include English classes.
At present, there is no evidence indicating what type of student benefits most from this intervention. This important question is still debated within the sector.
How effective is it?
TASO has not been able to find any studies that demonstrate causal evidence on the efficacy of foundation year programmes. Thus, we can only comment on the existing research, even though it does not meet TASO’s standards for evaluation. Currently, most of the research on FY is patchy and anecdotal. This page draws on five studies using qualitative survey data, descriptive quantitative data or students testimonies. TASO is hoping to encourage HEPs to conduct causal evaluations of FY courses. Primary outcome measures should include progression to the desired undergraduate degree, academic success during and after the programme (i.e. attainment and retention) and sense of belonging at university. It is also essential to look at the programme design and determine to what extent each element contributes to the programme’s success.
- Access to undergraduate studies
In 2016, Welsh HEPs consulted by their government argued that FY courses allow target groups to proceed to undergraduate studies. They have presented statistics and students’ surveys to corroborate this statement, whilst acknowledging that further research should be initiated in this area (Welsh government, 2016).
The OfS (2019) published a descriptive overview of the FY student population compared to Access Course students. Their findings show that 79% of students progressed to a degree programme in the four years following a FY. This is 27% more than for Access Course students. Furthermore, those who progressed to a full-time degree-level study after a FY were more likely to complete their degree within four years (63%), than those who graduated from an Access Course.
- Course completion and attainment
Goldring et al. (2018) focused on the experience of FY students at a UK university, using survey data. They reported that the majority of students surveyed were positive about the programme. The importance of belonging at the university and/or the college has been identified as a critical component in supporting FY students. Indeed, it appears to increase engagement and retention, although there is no causal evidence to support the claim (Thomas, 2012).
Sanders and Daly (2013) compared the outcomes (i.e. course completion and academic attainment) for students who had undertaken a FY course and their direct-entry peers at the end of their first year of undergraduate. They observed no significant difference between the two groups. Yet, the lack of matching between FY students and their direct entry peers increases the potential for biases due to unobservable confounding variables.
McLellan et al., (2016) looked at a FY in Arts and Humanities organised by the University of Bristol. They observed a 89% completion rate for the programme as well as quantitative improvements in grades and an increase in confidence, based on self-report measures.
Finally, Engelbrecht et al. (2014) produced a descriptive analysis of the impact of a South African science FY programme at the University of Pretoria, using quantitative data (N=346). They identified five evaluation indicators for the programme: retention, completion rate, migration to other faculties, comparison with other institutions and enrolment in graduate studies. The study indicated that the programme was moderately successful with regards to retention and completion rate, compared to other similar FYs at other universities. Yet, it indicated more success regarding graduate enrolment and science-based migration to other faculties, meaning that a high percentage of students remained in science-related programmes after the course. The study highlights characteristic features of this programme (i.e. all teaching activities are delivered by the discipline department and students attend both small tutorial classes and large group lectures) but it does not claim that these specific elements have improved outcomes.
What features seem to be important?
According to the existing research, there are a number of elements that HEPs should take into account when attempting to design or implement a FY programme.
Having conducted a systematic literature review on the design and effectiveness of FYs in English-speaking countries, Kettley and Murphy (2021) have identified five ‘Key Success Factors’:
- an educational philosophy committed to transforming HE for disadvantaged students
- the integration of academic literacies, that is what counts as knowledge in a particular academic context, as opposed to generic study skills
- the development of disciplinary content that should constitute marketable credentials able to improve future employability
- a genuine commitment to an emancipatory pedagogy, where students are empowered to think critically about the political and social issues that exist inside and outside of their environment (Noui & Sajjadi, 2014);
- holistic student support
Finances are an important feature for the students. For disadvantaged students in particular, finances may represent a significant barrier to undertake a FY programme. Indeed, these programmes can be costly and lead to additional debt because of the additional year of study required. Thus, availability of student support finance may contribute to these courses’ attractiveness (Welsh government, 2016).
Another important element is the need to foster a sense of belonging amongst FY students, making sure that they are ‘fitting in’ (Kettley & Murphy, 2021). For example, Goldring et al. (2018) noted that 60% of the students surveyed reported feeling like they did not belong to the university which might be linked to the physical location of the course, which differs from the main university campus. The authors recommend focusing on the physical location of the course, fostering early engagement with academic staff and providing a clear description of courses to students, to avoid a mismatch in their expectations.
Other studies also insist on the need for a comprehensive pastoral and academic support system (Grayson, 1996; McLellan et al., 2016) .
As for UCAS, Sanders and Daly (2013) recommend that it should collaborate with HEPs to develop a more standardised way of presenting and describing FYs, as it should facilitate students’ recruitment.
Finally, Kettley and Murphy (2021) insist that whilst a FY can constitute a useful tool, it does not unilaterally ensure that the widening participation targets are met and cannot compensate for the wider institutional or societal inequality.
What don’t we know?
Given that we have found no causal evidence regarding FY programmes, there is still a lot that we do not know or lack evidence on.
Producing causal research on FY courses is highly important. As discussed above, future research should monitor primary outcomes such as progression to the desired undergraduate degree, academic success during and after the programme (i.e. attainment and retention) and sense of belonging at university.
The small size of cohorts and the long time scale necessary to measure academic and professional trajectories create significant challenges for evaluators. Despite this, it is still possible and necessary to produce rigorous research on the impact of these programmes (Goldring et al., 2018). Another difficulty might be the definition of a counterfactual or control group, an important element to establish causation.
Importantly, it is difficult to know if FY programmes represent value for money, especially when compared to alternative routes to HE. This is an essential question given that these programmes are often criticised for being too costly.
More knowledge is also required on the course structure, academic content and pedagogical practices associated with specific FY courses. Indeed, existing research on FYs often solely focuses on specific aspects of curriculum design (i.e., study skills or problem-based learning). Understanding how each design feature affects outcomes for each type of student is an essential step towards more effective programmes. This can be done by focusing on students’ experiences and taking a close look at the internal mechanisms that come into play throughout the course.
Where does the evidence come from?
TASO’s advice on the efficacy of FY programmes is based on evidence from six narrative and self-report research studies, all conducted in the UK. No causal or empirical research studies were found.
We have focused on evidence produced in the last 10 years and, in the case of UK-based evidence, since the student finance reforms were introduced in 2012. Older evidence has been included if is exceptionally relevant.
The key references are given below.
We have not identified any relevant causal study.
Other studies on foundation year programmes
Engelbrecht, J., Harding, A. and Potgieter, M., 2014. Evaluating the success of a science academic development programme at a research-intensive university. African Journal of Research in Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, 18(3), pp.287-298. Linked here.
Goldring, T., Harper, E., Jassal, R., Joseph, L., Kelly, A., Mulrooney, H., Piper, I. and Walker, H., 2018. Experience and expectations of transition to higher education: a qualitative exploration. New Directions in the Teaching of Physical Sciences, 13(1). https://doi.org/10.29311/ndtps.v0i13.2849
Grayson, D.J., 1996. A holistic approach to preparing disadvantaged students to succeed in tertiary science studies. Part I. Design of the Science Foundation Programme (SFP). International Journal of Science Education, 18(8), pp.993-1013. doi: 10.1080/0950069960180810
Kettley, N. and Murphy, C., 2021. Augmenting excellence, promoting diversity? Preliminary design of a foundation year for the University of Cambridge. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 42(3), pp.419-434. doi: 10.1080/01425692.2021.1886050
McLellan, J., Pettigrew, R. and Sperlinger, T., 2016. Remaking the elite university: An experiment in widening participation in the UK. Power and education, 8(1), pp.54-72. doi: 10.1177/1757743815624117
Nouri, A. and Sajjadi, S.M., 2014. Emancipatory Pedagogy in Practice: Aims, Principles and Curriculum Orientation. The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 5(2). http://libjournal.uncg.edu/ijcp/article/download/228/671
Office for Students, 2019, Preparing for degree study, National archives, England. Linked here.
Sanders, L. and Daly, A., 2013. Building a successful foundation?: The role of Foundation Year courses in preparing students for their degree. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 14(1), pp.42-56. http://dx.doi.org/10.5456/WPLL.14.S.42
Thomas, L., 2012. Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change. Paul Hamlyn Foundation, 100, pp.1-99. Linked here.
UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service), 2017, Progression Pathways 2017: Pathways through Higher Education, England. Linked here.
Welsh government, 2016. Support for foundation years, Wales. Linked here.