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Employer and needs-led curriculum planning in higher education: a cross-sector case study of foundation degree development

Rosalind Foskett
University of Southampton, School of Education


The emergence of Foundation Degree programmes in response to employer workforce development needs provides a rich environment for the study of curriculum innovation in the context of cross-sector partnerships in post-compulsory education. This paper presents the findings of a case study of curriculum planning of three foundation degree programmes developed by consortia involving employer groups in both the private and public sectors, six further education colleges, and the University of Southampton. All three sectors shared a common goal of widening participation, yet contrasts in the range of other aims that each sought from this initiative generated significant challenges to the curriculum developers.

This study draws on evidence from documentary analysis, participant observation, and informal interviews of the major stakeholders over a period of two years. This paper highlights the barriers to effective curriculum change within partnership contexts and the benefits which accrue.

1. Introduction

Like any other area of social activity, education goes through phases of change which fundamentally affect how it operates. Priorities for change may be intrinsic as new and better ways of doing things are sought in response to some perceived need of the practitioners. Alternatively, the priorities may be extrinsic as the stakeholders within society impose content, methods or structures which they perceive will 'improve' the education process. This paper looks at one element that is affecting curriculum change in higher education - the pressure for institutions to work within collaborative partnerships to develop appropriate curriculum in line with government priorities for change. Two key policies will provide the focus for this: the pledge that the government has made to widen participation in higher education and the desire to make the sector work more closely with business to assist workforce development and modernisation.

The emergence of foundation degree programmes in response to employer workforce development needs provides a rich but, as yet, poorly researched environment for the study of curriculum innovation in the context of cross sector partnerships in post-compulsory education. This paper presents some initial findings from curriculum planning in the context of three foundation degree programmes developed by consortia involving employer groups in both the public and private sector, six further education colleges and the University of Southampton. All three examples involved partners who shared a common goal of widening participation, yet there were clear differences in the other aims that each sought to achieve.

The process of curriculum development within the new paradigm of foundation degrees provides particular challenges - not least due to the nature of collaboration and partnership. This paper highlights some of the barriers to effective curriculum change within partnership contexts, such as cultural disparities and the diversity of expectations between the stakeholders. It also considers some of the benefits which can accrue. Many of these are documented in the recent literature (for example Barden, 1993; Cantor, 1995; Trim, 2001). The admixture of perspectives, and the variety of problem-solving approaches used by the different partners in their various professional contexts, brings both tensions and unpredicted creativity to the shaping of the emergent curriculum. In this way the needs of a diverse student body and the employers can be met successfully, and each of the sectors gains insights into curriculum possibilities that can be transferred to new workplace learning contexts.

2. Methodology

This study draws on evidence from documentary analysis, participant observation and informal interviews of the major stakeholders over a period of two years to begin to identify the processes involved in developing a needs-led curriculum. The documents consulted included validation documents, papers prepared for accreditation visits to partner further education colleges (FECs), minutes of meetings, Memorandum of Agreements and correspondence between partners. The author was involved in both developments as a senior member of staff within the faculty and was able to observe the curriculum development process as it unfolded. Formal and informal evaluations took place during the development phase and after validation.

In addition, conversations and informal interviews with the major stakeholders have allowed evidence to be collected from different perspectives within the consortia. This study has been in preparation for a much larger and more formal study of curriculum development in collaborative partnerships involving higher education which is on-going.

3. The policy context

The development of foundation degrees can be tracked back some way in Government thinking and materialised as an articulated proposal in the Report of the National Committee of Inquiry in Higher Education (Dearing, 1997) which paved the way for more diversity in the undergraduate curriculum. Although the Report recognised the value of the single honours degree and the part it has in developing specialism, it also suggested the need for a greater variety of programmes and key skills development in curricula including at higher education level. The vocationalism, already adopted within the 16-19 curriculum, was signalled as an area for development in higher education. Recommendation 18 of the report, for example, encouraged 'institutions to identify opportunities to increase the extent to which programmes help students to become familiar with work, and help them reflect on such experience' (Dearing, 1997, Summary Report, p 44). Higher Education has been seeking ways of generating income to reduce dependence on HEFC funding. As other authors have pointed out, HEIs have seen the potential of collaborative relationships as one way of realising the value of their course provision and to enhance recruitment of students, particularly from non-traditional backgrounds (Smith and Bocock, 1999; Hodson and Thomas, 2001).

From the point of publication of the Dearing Report until the present day, HE has stayed in the political reforming spotlight. In November 1997, the Fryer Report Learning for the Twenty-First Century was published by the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning. This brought together much of the thinking on lifelong learning that had occurred since the publication of the Report of the Commission on Social Justice in 1994 (CSJ, 1994). Widening participation was seen as an essential requirement for encouraging a culture of lifelong learning in Britain and a driver for economic advance. The report stressed the importance of getting a higher proportion of the population to the starting line for learning and to ensure, once they had taken the first steps, that the barriers to learning were removed to enable progression. Workplace learning was identified as one of the areas for development including the provision for people to up-date their skills. The Fryer Report went on to suggest that employers should provide modern apprenticeships and employee development schemes; TECs 'should offer support through improved needs and labour market analysis and the provision of focussed programmes of learning' (Fryer, 1997, para 1.16); and the University for Industry (UfI) should assist by identifying learning gaps, brokering learning partnerships and using the new technologies to take learning to the learners. Point 6 of the report stresses the importance of collaboration and partnership in making these changes and, although higher education wasn't specified, the Report recommended the development of strategic partnerships of stakeholders at regional and local level.

The National Skills Task Force, set up in 1998, made its Final Report, Delivering Skills for All, in 1999 and the response from the Secretary of State, Opportunity for All: skills for the new economy, was published in 2000. The aim of this work was to ensure that Britain had the skills it needed to 'sustain high levels of employment, compete effectively in the global market place and provide opportunity for all' (DfEE, 2001, p 4). Although much of the agenda is aimed at schools and further education, higher education changes are clearly signalled. The vision 'is of a society where high skills, high rewards and access to education and training are open to everyone' (DfEE, 2001, p 6). In this vision it is clear that widening participation and access to education through an inclusive service is a key part of the strategy. One of the main priorities in the report is to 'open up a ladder of vocational opportunity for young people, offering parity of esteem with more academic study and progression to higher education' (ibid, p 6). This is spelled out later in the report where the development of 'new vocational foundation degrees' (ibid, p 6) is seen as the natural development of a vocational qualifications framework which begins with vocational GCSEs (introduced in 2002), through vocational A levels (AVCEs, introduced in 2000) and on to Foundation Degrees (introduced 2000).

Much of the document stresses the importance of workforce development which is to be achieved by the then Department for Education and Employment (DfEE), working with the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), the Regional Development Agency (RDA) and the National Training Organisations (NTOs), ensuring a strategic approach to skills development. It also advocates further development of the Modern Apprenticeship and Graduate Apprenticeship schemes. Higher Education is seen as an integral part of this vocational ladder and the need for greater links between higher education institutions (HEIs) and business receives special mention by the Secretary of State.

'To complete our new vocational ladder of opportunity, I am committed to the modernisation of our higher education system. Many of our universities are already the envy of the world, offering high-quality academic and postgraduate study. But not enough are building the kind of bridges between the campus and employers, which could substantially improve on our levels of workforce skills, productivity and innovation. Responding to the Task Force's original conception of an associate degree, we introduced the new Foundation Degree.' (DfEE, 2001, p 10)

Foundation degrees are seen as an important part of the strategy for a more vocationally relevant and accessible higher education curriculum. They are an example of government-led curriculum change and as such, they represent a major step towards the government's intention that HE should play its part in delivering its vision. One key element of government policy is widening access to higher education courses for traditionally hard-to-reach students and collaborative partnerships between higher education and further education are seen as an important vehicle for achieving this (Smith and Bocock, 1999; Hodson and Thomas, 2001; Jones 2002). Foundation degrees are seen as intermediate qualifications addressing the skills gap at higher technician and associate professional level and they have to provide progression to honours degrees and further professional qualifications. The purpose of foundation degrees is to:

Source: HEFCE, 2000

The new qualification was aimed at a market poorly served by many Universities (particularly the pre-1992 Universities). The Foundation Degree Prospectus (HEFCE, 2000) identifies a number of markets for this qualification including:

The essential features of foundation degrees, also identified in the prospectus, show that they were intended to encompass the elements of access, employment relevance, skills and progression which have been such a feature of educational change since the start of the 1990s. To achieve this vision the prospectus put forward a structure involving higher education, further education and employers in a three-way collaborative partnership. Closer working between the sectors has been suggested by many authors. Melville (1999) talks about a 'seamless web' of further and higher education providing easy transition for students. Harvey (1996) put forward the idea of a 'federal omniversity' with all FE and HE institutions in an area working together under one name with the full range of post-compulsory education provision on offer (see also Smith and Bocock, 1999). Marks (2002) sees closer working and collaboration as desirable in order to produce a less intimidatory system more appealing to adult students. Foundation degrees allow the sectors to move more closely towards this ideal.

4. Foundation Degrees at the University of Southampton

In 1997, the University of Southampton set up a new faculty to spearhead its commitment to widening participation and lifelong learning. It was clear that to have a significant impact on the composition of the student body applying to the University, the faculty would need to change the nature of the curriculum alongside changes in admissions, student support and guidance and the formation of strategic partnerships. When foundation degrees were announced, the faculty, under the leadership of Professor Bob Fryer, saw a number of benefits. The faculty needed to grow for strategic reasons and foundation degrees provided an area of government-backed growth. The curriculum needed to change radically to bring in more part-time students, to develop the skills agenda and to enrol from hard-to-reach sectors, all aims of foundation degrees. The faculty had been working hard at improving its working relationships with local strategic stakeholders and foundation degrees were seen to be a good vehicle for developing that work with business, public services and other educational institutions. The new faculty also needed to cement its working relationships with other parts of the University and the new qualification was seen as one way of doing this with the added benefit of raising awareness more generally within the University about widening participation issues.

This study considers the experience of three of the University's foundation degree projects; two have been validated and are now running and one failed to get to validation. The University and its consortium bid successfully for pilot funding and additional student numbers for a Foundation Degree in Health Care. This consortium consisted of four further education colleges and five National Health Service Trusts (now 14 Trusts due to re-organisation in the Health Service). This programme was validated in 2002 and recruited its first cohort of full-time and part-time students in September 2002. A second foundation degree was developed in conjunction with Local Education Authorities and three further education colleges. This Foundation Degree Working with Children is aimed at classroom assistants, play workers and other people working with young children aged up to 11 years. It is a part-time programme. This programme recruited its first cohort in January 2003.

The third example, which involved developing a Foundation Degree in Sport and Leisure Management, was not successful. The level of interest in the partner further education colleges was very high but it was impossible to secure sufficient employer involvement. Initial discussions took place with a local district council's leisure services department and with leisure facility providers within the private sector. The employers were interested in a programme for middle managers of leisure centres which would give credit for specific training undertaken by the staff. It was difficult to secure commitment from the district council to release staff time to work with the University and FECs to identify the curriculum (particularly the academic content) for the programme. In the private sector, the rapid turnover of staff and the practice of franchising contracts for sport and leisure services meant that building up a working relationship with key decision-makers proved difficult. Milbourne et al (2003) identify such changes in personnel as a key factors working against the success of collaborative partnerships. After about eight months of effort, the decision was taken by the University not to pursue programme development in this area due to the lack of progress and the high cost of staff time. A number of factors contributing to the failure of the programme were identified in discussions with key partners:

5. Articulation of aims

Other researchers who have studied the nature of collaboration and partnership in curriculum development have found that the critical success factors include a clear articulation of the aims of each of the stakeholders taking part in the project and convergence of those aims towards a common purpose (Field, 1995; Jones, 2000; Tett et al, 2001; Clegg and McNulty, 2002). This is borne out by the finding of this study. All the stakeholders in the two successful programmes were committed to widening participation in higher education and this was the stated aim for the educational institutions involved. In the case of the employers the principal aims for taking part were workforce development. The stated aims are captured in the validation documents.

The Foundation Degree in Health Care identifies the main strategic aims of the programme development to be:

(University of Southampton, 2002a)

In the Foundation Degree Working with Children the strategic aims were:

(University of Southampton, 2002b)

These are the agreed strategic aims of the programme and were subscribed to by all the partners and have been stated publically in programme documentation. The lists show that widening participation and lifelong learning are articulated aims of both programmes and that the employers needs related specifically to modernisation and development of the workforce. This clarity of purpose was important for securing employer commitment to provide the staff resource necessary to undertake the curriculum development.

However, this is only part of the picture. It is clear from this study that the success or failure of the partnership depends as much on the unstated aims. These may be emergent aims which are slowly revealed as the project develops as the trust between the partners grows, but which are not stated at the start. As in all relationships, people are more likely to be honest and reveal their true motives to old friends rather than new acquaintances. As Trim (2001) has pointed out, the most successful partnerships occur where institutions have similar value systems. The partnership needs to be ready to recognise these emergent aims and work with them or risk weakening or jeopardising the partnership.

In addition, each stakeholder may also have a set of aims that it does not articulate to the other partners at all. These may include issues of financial security, programme viability, institutional resistance to change and other sensitive subjects. For the unwary curriculum developer these unarticulated, hidden aims can hijack the process.

In the two successful examples of foundation degree development in this study, the determination of the partners to produce a successful programme which addressed the identified employer needs allowed the 'emergent aims' to be dealt with as they revealed themselves. An essential part of the curriculum development process when working in collaborative partnerships is the development of trust and openness in the working relationship. This is a time-consuming process which cannot be hurried and must therefore be seen by all parties as a long-term relationship (Trim, 2001). In the two successful foundation degrees described here there was already a history of valuable working relationships between the partners which was missing in the case of the Foundation Degree Sport and Leisure Management. This would seem to be a critical factor for success.

6. Curriculum Development

The management of curriculum development processes is essential to maintain momentum, achieve cohesion and keep to time. In these cases, a Steering Group was set up to oversee the development of each foundation degree. This body was inclusive of all the main stakeholders involved. The Fd Health Care Steering Group was chaired by a senior employer representative and was very large due to the size of the consortium and the fragmentation that occurred in the Health Service early in the project. For operational reasons, a number of sub-groups were set up to develop the programme including ones for curriculum development, work-based learning, library and resources, finance and contracts, marketing and recruitment, and administration. These reported to the Steering Group. The development of the curriculum was led by a specially recruited Project Officer. As the programme is delivered regionally at level 1, locality groups were set up to oversee the implementation of the programme post-validation. These locality groups are also chaired by employers and members are representatives of the local trusts, the FEC for that region, and the programme co-ordinator from the University.

The Fd Working with Children Steering Group was much smaller including the partner FECs and the Local Education Authorities representatives (Hampshire County Council and Southampton City Council). It was chaired by a member of the University. The main curriculum development work was undertaken by a sub-group led by the programme co-ordinator from the University and it reported to the Steering Group.

In both cases there were two parallel processes leading to full validation of the programme: development of the curriculum resulting in validation of the academic programme specification, and University accreditation of the FECs and workplaces as locations for higher education delivery. Accreditation involves a review of staffing, the provision of library and other learning resources, student advice and guidance, and arrangements for monitoring and administration of programmes. Partnership delivery of undergraduate programmes of this kind was a relatively undeveloped area of work for the University so all the Colleges which joined these first two foundation degree developments needed to become accredited colleges. However, subsequent developments have only required programme specific review of the learning environment within the FECs.

The curriculum development process within a collaborative context proved both challenging and rewarding. The University staff involved were very experienced in developing undergraduate curriculum in the more traditional single, joint and multi-disciplinary forms. Foundation degrees with the emphasis on employer involvement, collaboration, skills development and work-based learning were rather different. A number of challenges presented themselves to be overcome. These mirror many of the barriers to collaboration which can be found in the literature (For example Wilson and Pirie, 2000; Power, 2001; Tett et al, 2003).

  1. Size of partnerships

The nature of the Foundation Degree in Health Care and the fact that re-organisation of the Health Service increased greatly the number of Trusts produced a very large and unwieldy consortium. At the start of the development, the University spent a great deal of senior staff time and resource managing this consortium. It was keen that the employers felt that they had ownership of the development and that the problems which result from unequal power relationships were avoided (Billis and Harris, 1996; Quicke, 2000; Trim, 2001; Milbourne et al, 2003; Tett et al, 2003). However, in the early stages this sharing contributed to a lack of firm leadership and unclear decision-making. The feedback from FECs and employers was that the University should have taken a much firmer lead from the start. This problem was eventually solved by sub-division of the work and the development of the locality groups to implement the programme locally. Thus, the management task has become more manageable but has retained the intimate involvement of employers and FECs. Comments from those questioned indicate a feeling of real ownership and involvement through these management arrangements. A clearer articulation of the aims and aspirations of each of the stakeholders at the start and firmer leadership by the University on the way curriculum development occurs would have been helpful.

  1. Focus of the foundation degree

The Foundation Degree in Health Care will produce care workers who will be able to work across inter-professional boundaries in a supervised environment. This idea of a new type of health worker, able to work with patients as they progress through the health service from initial assessment, treatment and onto rehabilitation, was ill-defined at the start of the curriculum development process. The health professionals on the team were still grappling with this innovative thinking regarding role development as the curriculum emerged. The new role envisaged by the employers is having a profound effect on the health service demanding changes in the grading structures, career progression and job specifications of staff. The lack of a clear job-related focus for this foundation degree and the fact that it is training people for a broad function rather than a specific role made the task of identifying the curriculum content difficult.

The Foundation Degree Working with Children is much more role specific, training staff in Early Years and Primary settings to work at the associate professional level, for example, as classroom assistants and play-workers. The content and delivery issues for curriculum development in this case were much clearer and simpler to structure. Meeting the employer needs was easier as they were better articulated and the employers were more experienced at working with curriculum processes. There was also a clearly defined client group who were used in the early stages to help identify their own training needs and the content and preferred modes of delivery. This need for a very well-defined focus for a foundation degree is in line with the review of early foundation degrees undertaken by the consultants from Price Waterhouse Coopers who found that the most successful early examples were those most focused on a specific job.

  1. The development of trust

Good and productive working relationships require trust between the stakeholders (Richards and Horder, 1999; Morgan and Hughes, 1999; Clegg and McNulty, 2002; Milbourne et al, 2003). This is not easy to develop quickly and the long lead time is partly due to a difference in culture which exists in the different environments. Clegg and McNulty (2002) have shown that the existence of a relationship before a formal partnership is formed provides useful 'cultural capital' which can be drawn on during the development process. In these cases there was relatively little cultural capital (virtually none in the case of sport) and a number of difficulties arose due to cultural disparities. The University has a history of working relationships with partners in the region. In the past, however, regional collaboration has not been a major priority. It has been working hard recently to improve these relationships for the benefit of students and other stakeholders. Trust between organisations rarely exists; it is in reality trust between individuals that is the cement in the relationship and which will ensure sustainability. This clearly depends on stability of personnel until completion of the job.

The building of trust is also an issue in the further education sector. The FECs are just emerging from a decade of cut-throat competition post-Incorporation and are now expected to work together to provide a more rational and seamless FE/HE provision. As one Principal put it in our discussion: "How can the Government expect us just to switch - we have been working in competition for a long time. It is impossible to switch to collaboration overnight." In addition, FE/HE trust needs to develop. Staff in FECs have a very different contract of employment than University staff and there are significant differences in terms of the balance between teaching, administration and research; holiday entitlement, and the rhythm of the year. As other authors have indicated, these cultural differences are real and must be acknowledged (Lyle and Robertson, 2003).

Employers may also suffer from mistrust of the other partners. They may be suspicious of educational institutions being able to deliver the product they want within an appropriate time-frame - University processes can seem painfully slow to employers and collaborative development is even more so. In addition, there may be rivalry and competition between employers: this is more noticeable in the private sector but is also present to some degree within the public sector in the climate of a more market-led service provision.

In this study, this element of trust came to the fore particularly when resources were being discussed and led to some of the most difficult agenda items. The problems were overcome by investment of time from senior staff from all organisations involved and the development of Memoranda of Agreement which stated the financial basis of the arrangement. As a result of experience this element of development work has moved the Memorandum from being akin to a 'gentleman's agreement' to a firm contractual agreement.

  1. Curriculum leadership

The initial documentation regarding foundation degrees (HEFCE,2000) indicated that these were to be employer-led initiatives involving consortia consisting of FECs and an HEI. The programmes developed by the University of Southampton have followed this guidance. However, the experience of HE curriculum development lies principally at first within the University staff. Issues of ownership were solved by the main committees being chaired by employers and all working groups having representatives from each type of stakeholder. It became clear as the projects developed that FE staff, although expert in the development of schemes of work, student support and the delivery of programmes, had little experience of curriculum development from first principles or working as the examination board for a programme. A considerable amount of time was needed in each case to build up the capacity of the development team through training days and in meetings. This level of need for staff development had not been foreseen and it increased the costs in terms of time commitment and financial resource.

There were also considerable benefits of working within a consortium as the trust between partners developed. The different perspectives which came from different sectors working together produced a creative tension which increased the innovative ideas for teaching and learning. This was particularly true in terms of the work-based learning where the employers and the FE staff contributed greatly from their own experiences. It was agreed that the extra time and effort required in the development phase was repaid in terms of the student experience.

  1. Learning Resources

Both of these foundation degrees are taught in the workplace and in FECs at level 1 and in the workplace and in the University at level 2. An issue at validation was therefore the equity of student experience according to their location of study. In particular this requires careful management of the learning environment and attention being given to the equity of access to resources across delivery sites. During the development of the foundation degree in Health Care a sub-group, chaired by a NHS library representative, met to consider the provision of library resources and access to the University network and virtual learning environment. This group pioneered the model of resource delivery which they termed the 'hub and spoke' model. Students could gain full access to the learning resources at the University (the hub) or through a connection to the FECs and hospitals (the spokes) and library provision was standardised across all providers. Early problems involved incompatibility of the IT systems and firewalls which prevented access to materials. These issues have been resolved and the model for delivery is now standard for all University foundation degrees.

  1. Finance

The experience of these consortia is that foundation degrees are expensive to set up and their emphasis on work-based learning makes them costly to deliver. This has been a focus for debate at all the Foundation Degree Support Conferences that have been held. It has now been recognised by HEFCE that these programmes will need to attract a premium rate if they are to develop further and there are proposals for a rise in funding for part time students and foundation degrees from next year. The University of Southampton and its partners were fortunate to receive pilot funding for the foundation degree in health care. However, the consortium did not receive all the money it bid for and the development costs far exceeded the amount granted. All consortium members therefore have put in considerable amounts of resource to develop and implement this programme. Even at fee band C, there is insufficient resource to pay for a well supervised and supported work-based learning model without institutions subsidising this work by diverting resource from elsewhere.

Also, the complex nature of a collaborative partnership means that someone has to manage it. Quality Assurance is the responsibility of the University and this management task therefore tends to fall to the HEI. The manager's role requires high level negotiation and management skills and therefore, necessitates a senior appointment. The cost of this is most likely to be borne by the University. Where, as in these cases, the students are being taught in FECs during level 1, and therefore a high proportion of the funding flows to the FECs, the income from students is insufficient to cover these central costs. This is a large up-front commitment for the Higher Education Instutution to bear.

7. Benefits of partnership

It is possible to find in the literature a significant degree of commonality in the benefits to working in partnership (Appelbee, 1998; Jones, 2000, Tett et al, 2001; Clegg and McNulty, 2002). Many of these benefits accrued in the examples of needs-led curriculum development in this study. One of the key advantages came from the synergy of organisations working together which brought different perspectives into the problem-solving arena. This produced creative solutions to questions of content, organisation and delivery of the curriculum. The work-based element and the flexibility of programme delivery in particular benefited from this creative tension. By working in partnership, the team secures access to a range of skills required for curriculum development such as the development of work-based learning modules; student support; project management and business planning.

Another oft quoted benefit (Veugelers and Zijlstra, 1995; Gilchrist, 1998; Jones 2000; Clegg and McNulty, 2002) is the way that such networking assists the members of the partnership gain a better understanding of Government policy and the external environment. Mixing with other professionals and gaining insight of their perspective of current issues and trends is helpful and can cement the personal relationships on which partnership working depends. The 'us and them' of the individual perspective within the partnership becomes an 'us and them' between the partnership and external bodies.

With increasing emphasis on enterprise and entrepreneurship in both the higher education and the further education sectors, collaboration with business and employers in the public sector can bring wider benefits than the immediate curriculum provision. Lawlor and Miller (1991) believe that partnership between education and business should make education more relevant to the work situation. This takes a number of forms. Clearly, in these cases, the students and staff work closely with the employers through the curriculum in their work-based learning modules and in the professional development assignments. All involved gain greater insight into the workings of business and industry and this can be fed into other curriculum development and teaching within the institution.

These specific programmes have been successful at widening participation to higher education which was the primary aim for the education institutions involved. Table 1 shows the original entry statistics for the first cohort of the Foundation Degree in Health Care. Over 70% of both part time and full time students met at least one of the widening participation criteria set and the high figures for social group 3M-5 (30.2% for full-time students and 40.9% for part-time students) was particularly significant.

Table 1: Foundation Degree in Health Care, Cohort 1, Widening Participation Criteria

Criterion  Full-time
(43 students)
(44 students)
Ethnicity 17.8%  4.5%
Disability 0.02%  6.8%
Social group (3M-5) 30.2% 40.9%
Non-standard education  49.0%  47.7%
% meeting at least one criterion  72.09%  77.27%

The figures for the Foundation Degree Working with Children are similar. The first cohort of 51 students was predominantly mature students (84% over 25 years of age). Table 2 shows that like the Fd Health Care, over 70% of the students met at least one widening participation criteria. The largest group again was those with non-standard qualifications on entry, but the figure of over 17% for social group 3M-5 was encouraging.

Table 2: Foundation Degree Working with Children, Cohort 1, Widening Participation Criteria

Criterion Part-time
(51 students)
Ethnicity 4.0%
Disability 5.9%
Social group (3M-5) 17.6%
Non-standard education 60.8%
% meeting at least one criterion 70.6%

The employers main aim for joining the consortium was to develop a programme which would give their staff access to professional and academic development. As part of the workforce development aspirations of the organisations, the success comes from opportunities which were not there before. In the Health Service, the training of a group of staff with a new set of skills and heightened aspirations has provided an impetus to change the grading structure and the work profiles for a range of staff as part of the modernisation agenda.

8. Conclusions

This study demonstrates that the general factors which lead to successful and sustainable partnerships are also important when engaging in needs-led curriculum development with employers. As Tett et al (2001) have indicated, complimentary aims are essential, and it helps if the mission statements of the organisations involved are also compatible (Trim, 1994; Kirk, 1995; Trim, 2001). Good personal relationships and strong interpersonal skills of the partnership members are also essential. Indeed, Richards and Horder (1999) found that 'personal feelings, views and attitudes' matter more than those of the institutions that the individuals represent.

The conclusions from the collaborative partnerships described here lead to a number recommendations for this type of curriculum development. The consortium should be kept to a manageable size and roles and responsibilities should be articulated at an early stage. The partners should feel that there is equality and that they all have an equal say but not at the expense of clear leadership and management of the project. The aims for the curriculum development should be articulated early on and, if possible, reveal as many of the 'hidden aims' as possible. This will require an atmosphere of trust which may take some time to develop and cannot be hurried. Foundation degrees should be clearly focused and be based on a well-defined employment area. Market analysis and scoping of the views of those working in the area is an important early step in the curriculum development process. There needs to recognition from all partners that this will be a learning situation. Staff development needs should be identified early on and a budget be set up for this activity. The learning environment should be analysed and, if more that one site is involved in the delivery, issues of equity of student experience will need attention. Finally, there needs to be a clearly stated contractual agreement of what each of the partners is committed to, the procedures for partners joining and leaving the partnership, and how the financial resources will be shared and used.

Despite the difficulties of working in collaborative partnerships, in these cases there are now a large number of students studying at the University of Southampton who would not have had that chance without the efforts of the development teams. The process has been difficult, and there are still issues to be resolved, but the enthusiastic reception by the students makes it worthwhile and has opened up possibilities to them. The last word should be theirs:

Female student (45 years old) Foundation Degree in Health Care. Presently a Nursing Auxiliary in Southampton Primary Care Trust:

"The support from my College and the University is marvellous. The tutors all want you to do well and are really approachable. The course has been a life-changing experience. It really builds your confidence - and I've found I know more than I thought I did."


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 24 September 2003