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【The Standard】How university foundation courses are threatening British schools

UK University


An interesting development that has taken place over the last few years in the UK is the rise in popularity of the university foundation course.

These courses used to be just a useful way for international students to get themselves up to speed and to prepare for university studies in Britain.

However, now they have become so popular that they are actually starting to rival sixth form colleges and independent schools.

The shift is in large part due to changes in the entry policies of foundation courses.

In the past, students had to have completed their advanced education before they could be accepted into any foundation course.

Increasingly though, today, foundation courses will accept pupils in the middle of A-Levels or even as low as having only just done GCSEs.

Overall, the scene is becoming much more commercially driven. This means that, when it comes to attracting international students, independent schools are no longer just competing with each other – they are now competing with foundation courses as well.

Here in Hong Kong, it’s easy to see the appeal of these courses to parents and students.

When families opt for a British education, they typically have their sights set on the end goal of a university degree.

Whether this is a qualification for a classic profession, such as law or medicine, or a more general degree that gives the graduate wider career options, the priority is to get into the best university possible.

A foundation course offers a shortcut to this goal. Instead of studying hard at a school and then going through a competitive application process to try and gain entry to a university, you could work just as hard on a foundation course and, assuming you pass your exams, have entry to a degree program at a good university guaranteed.

A couple of months ago when I visited the UK, I saw just how good many of these foundation courses really are. It came home to me how much of a threat they present to schools.

A good example would be the offering by Durham University – which is absolutely phenomenal.

The university has its own sports hall, a purpose-built campus and top-notch accommodation.

All these are given an additional boost by the strength of the brand – Durham University is one of the best universities in the UK, and has an excellent reputation and centuries of history behind it.

Compare all of that to what is now an equivalent offering from a small independent school.

However good a school may be and however good the results it achieves, if it is not famous abroad and is not a familiar name to prospective international students, it will struggle.

Having said this, there are three points that are important to bear in mind with foundation courses.

One is that they often will not provide anywhere near the same level of pastoral care as a school.

The second is that they will rarely offer the same level of cultural diversity within the student population as schools, purely because there are so many Asian pupils attending them. (However, some do argue, at the age of 16 to 18, both of these factors are less important than they are at the age of 11 to 15.)

The final point is that not all foundation courses are excellent. In fact, there is a great range in the quality of the facilities and overall packages that they provide.