Post-foundation progress: A case of rakes or pilgrims?

Martin Millar, Oxford Brookes University


1) Introduction

2) The IFD course, and the IFD and Brookes

3) The UK context of HE, remarks and statistics.

4) IFD students

5) Post-IFD performance

6) Issues and problems

7) Conclusion

8) Future research plans


Fanning (1999) points out the significant benefits to EAP courses when, instead of appearing on the “service margins” of higher education, they are incorporated into degree courses. He argues that there is more to it than mere status-raising, and describes the advantages in terms of increased student motivation, greater respect for and observance of institutional norms and procedures, and the positive pressure on the EAP team to design and deliver “educationally” loaded goods.

At Oxford Brookes, the International Centre for English Language Studies has in the last year, advanced to the final stage of incorporation: we have established our own English Language and Linguistics field, to form part of a joint honours degree. However, for several years, ICELS has run two foundation courses, both of which are also deeply embedded in the institutional culture. These are the International Foundation Diploma course (IFD), and the Foundation Diploma in Liberal Arts (FDLA).

Today, I will make sole reference to the former, as this is the course that I have been most involved with since its inception in 1994. In particular, I want to discuss the performance of IFD graduates who remained at Brookes to take up places on degree courses.

The subject of institutional setting is highly relevant to the discussion, and in turning now to a description of the IFD, it is necessary to appreciate first of all, the fact that the course is part of the university’s Modular Programme. This programme carries the lion’s share of award-bearing courses on offer, covering certificates, diplomas and degrees. The Programme Handbook provides details of the fields, the modules which comprise them, and a panoply of regulatory and administrative detail. The IFD, although free-standing, is quite unlike the add-on or tacked-on EAP courses Fanning (op. cit.) decries. It is a complete educational programme of itself.

IFD Course Description

In common with other Oxford Brookes awards (e.g. Certificate of Higher Education), IFD students need to pass eight modules, including the compulsory and alternative compulsory modules. (We make it very clear to our students that this is merely enough to obtain the award, and not enough to gain a place at Brookes, on which more details later).

Here is a brief outline of the course, which, together with the Field Diagram, shows the overall structure in its present form:

IFD Course Structure

COMPULSORY MODULE(S): M00719 Foundation Project

M00710 Introduction to University Studies (IELTS 5.0 or above, or equivalent) OR
M02909 Key Academic Skills for International Students (IELTS 6.0 or above or equivalent)



M00711 Academic English (IELTS score of less than 6.0)
M00730 Grammar and Academic Writing (IELTS score of less than 6.0)


M00701 Foundation Economics
M00702 Foundation Business StudiesM00703 Tourism and Hospitality
M00704 Foundation Law
M00705 Foundation Politics and Society
M00707 Foundation Media Studies
M00708 Introduction to IT
M00714 Inter-cultural Communication
M00715 International Relations
M00743 Perspectives on the Social Sciences
M00744 Perspectives on the Humanities
M00745 Britain through its Cinema

BASIC MODULES List A. (Alternative compulsory/acceptable)
(Students must pass ONE of these modules. All are acceptable, but only two may be counted).

M03107 Hospitality Operations Principles and Practice
M06107 A Comparative Perspective on Educational Issues
M07001 Introduction to Business
M07101 Introduction to Accounting
M07406 The Context and Development of UK Business
M07602 Political Ideologies
M07605 The Structure and Process of Government
M07607 Understanding Europe: History, Politics, Economics and Culture
M07702 The Individual and Society
M07904 The Legal Process
M08000 Computer Systems
M08403 Introduction to Statistics
M08600 Basic Mathematical Methods I
M08608 Basic Mathematical Methods II
M08609 Introductory Mathematics
M08709 Microcomputer Applications
M0870A Internet and Multimedia Applications
M13705 Media and Communication

Field Diagram

As can be seen from the references to IELTS scores in the module descriptions above, the course caters for international students with different levels of incept proficiency. Through the range of content modules, it provides several foundation pathways to a number of fields, e.g. business, social sciences, humanities, computing, hospitality studies and others. Students are encouraged to select modules according to their language needs, their future educational intentions, and their present educational interests. The role of the Field Chair in managing the course and in providing guidance to students is paramount. He or she has to liaise carefully with the Personal Tutors, who are charged with the task of supervising students in compiling their individual programmes, and helping them to make adjustments should the need arise.

The IFD represents an alternative to A-levels, and is classed as a non-traditional entry qualification, in company with the wide array of access courses on offer at FE colleges, “crammers” and other providers. I would like to explore this aspect of foundation provision in brief before proceeding to the main theme of the paper. Before doing so, I will first provide some specific information on the subject of the IFD as a university entry qualification.

The IFD and university entry:

As mentioned earlier, students need to do more than pass the IFD to gain a place at Brookes. The International Student Admissions Tutor has set three bar heights for IFD graduates. For Business, Computing, Hotel Management and Languages fields an average of 55% is required. For fields like Law, Sociology and Psychology it may be set at 60% or 65% depending upon whether these are chosen as part of a Joint or Single Honours degree. If a student wishes to do Law and Marketing Management, or Sociology and Tourism, the former average will apply (60%). If the course choice is Single Honours Law or Psychology, or Sociology, the bar height is set at 65%.

Other institutions offer places to our students on the basis of a simple “pass”, and since the pass mark for any module is 40%, students who fulfilled the requirements of the course with a set of eight C would be admitted. Alternatively, very prestigious universities often set higher entry levels than Brookes. Warwick and LSE have asked for 70% averages and Manchester 65%, for admission to Business courses.

UK Context of HE

In considering the value of foundation courses such as the IFD, it is useful to remind ourselves of the bigger picture here, and to note just how many participants in UK higher education now enter with non-traditional qualifications. Thomas (2001) reports UCAS findings for 1997-98, and 1998-9 as follows:

Students entering HE

With A-levels

With other qualifications







At Oxford Brookes, the percentages of students classified as entering courses with other qualifications, provides further evidence of the sea change in UK higher education that Peter Scott has written about so eloquently (Scott 1998a, 1998b, and 2001).


















Cohort statistics from the single honours BA in Business and Management course reveal similar trends:



















B tech





































[NB: The list of entry qualifications is not exhaustive, and some categories have been omitted. Categories are not exclusive, and students may have been admitted on the basis of more than one qualification. These two facts serve to explain why percentages either exceed or fall short of 100% when added together.]

It is interesting to note in passing that in the above-mentioned commentaries on widening participation in UK HE, there is no link made between the issues attached to disadvantaged or otherwise under-represented groups of UK-domiciled students, and international students. Thomas (op. cit.) makes no mention of international students at all, and commentary and information about international students is almost entirely absent from Warner and Palfreyman (2001), pace Scott (2001). This is a curious omission, since the category of non-traditional qualifications is used by admissions tutors when considering the applications of both kinds of student. Both groups are collectively fêted at one turn, and problematized at the next.

Of course, the point is that they are fêted and problematized in different ways, and for different reasons. The differentiation can be characterized in terms of the following set of descriptors:

 Non-traditional students in Higher Education  



Access/ B-tech qualifications

Foundation qualifications

Dialect/ESL deficits or differences

Language/EFL deficits or differences

Sub-cultural differences

Cultural differences

Motivational difficulties

Conceptual difficulties

Source of pro bono status for institution

Source of revenue for institution

I will deal with the issue of the problematization of IFD students later on in this paper.

It is now time to consider the IFD student cohorts which formed the basis of my research.

IFDF Students

IFD Cohort Statistics
Students entering the IFD:



















Source: Modular Course – summary of examinations for units ending between years indicated, Systems Office, Oxford Brookes University. . (Doc Ref: ASM_MODST 1. 01)

[*As of September 2002. This number is certain to rise due to the prospective addition of January entrants.]

Clearly, the course has recruited well, with substantial, if uneven, growth in the number of students entering since its inception in September 1994.

The next table shows the numbers of those succeeding in obtaining the award to date:

Students qualifying for the award:

















Source: see previous table.

There are a number of facts that need to be put forward in relation to these IFD cohort statistics to explain the discrepancies between enrolment and qualification figures.

First, there is the regulation stipulating that students are allowed up to two years to pass the foundation stage. All of the cohorts identified in both tables, excepting the first (94-95) thus feature a contingent of continuing students. In any given year this could be as many as 10% of the total.

Secondly, there is the regulation covering minimal progress and academic failure. Minimal progress is defined as passing three modules in any series of three contiguous terms. Normally, this would mean three modules over the course of the academic year, but it also covers January entrants, and continuing students. Failure to satisfy this condition results in students being compelled to withdraw from the course. In the eight-year history of the IFD, this has happened to only four individuals.

Thirdly, the other substantial discrepancies between starting and finishing the course can be explained in terms of voluntary withdrawal. Again, this could mean that a student has withdrawn after or during Terms 1, 2 or 3. Proportions of students withdrawing from the course vary considerably from year to year, but there is evidence that is on the increase. Poor academic performance on the IFD is certainly one factor, and we take this as evidence that, among other things, the course demands commitment and stamina.

These facts need to be borne in mind when we come to an inspection of post-IFD performance, which is discussed later on.

Having presented the cohort statistics, I would now like to discuss the nationality profiles of the students.

Nationality profiles of IFD students.

All cohorts, including the present one (02-03) are notable for having a large number of nationalities represented. Cohort 1 (94-95) had students from 18 countries, and 70% of these were represented by only one or two individuals. If any one country stood out in the years 94-98, it was Japan, but even then, the numbers never amounted to more than 15% of these cohorts. Five other countries produced numbers corresponding to 2%-7% of the totals during the first four years. These were Russia, China, Cyprus and assorted EU countries. The proliferation of countries represented by single individuals or pairs of students increased from 18 to 29 during the same period. The year 1999-2000 was significant in that it saw a shift towards a very strong representation of students from the PRC - 20% of that cohort, in fact. This tendency has continued, and in 2002, the proportion has risen to over 50%.

The issue of the increase in the numbers of Chinese students enrolling on the IFD has had a significant impact on the course, prompting a major reform carried out in 2001. Other effects have been seen in our students’ UCAS preferences, and in institutional tension. ICELS staff involved in the management and delivery of the IFD have sensed an increase in that special mix of antipathy and skeptical resignation which seems to greet some of our Chinese graduates when they take up places on certain courses at Brookes. This latter phenomenon is the one I referred to earlier in the remarks I made regarding international students as being seen as ‘having problems’ of one sort or another. Again, I’d like to postpone a fuller discussion of this until later.

IFD students remaining at Brookes and course destinations:

The table below shows the numbers of IFD graduates who subsequently entered courses at Brookes and the year they entered:















The overwhelming majority of IFD graduates who have qualified for places at Brookes join Business courses, either as single honours, such as Business and Management, or as part of a joint honours degree. I estimate this at between 60 and 70% of any progressing cohort..My estimate is crude, and relies on lumping together counts of students entering fields which are normally distinguished from Business, but which are directly or indirectly related to it. I have included, for example, counts of students going into Accounting, Marketing Management, Tourism and Economics. The interest in business courses often goes beyond the undergraduate course. I counted 20 cases of IFD graduates who joined MSc or MA business courses immediately after finishing their first degrees. (For figures on the popularity of business courses among international students see Bolton (2001))

Other relatively popular options for IFD graduates are Hotel and Restaurant Management/Hospitality Studies (5-10%) and Computing (5-10%). Figures for Law are variable. In some years, no individuals entered this field, while in other years as many as 5 did (14% in 1999). Other courses attract single representatives of IFD graduate cohorts: these include Architecture, Planning, Real Estate Management, Environmental Management, Publishing, Politics, Sociology, Psychology, Education, Media and indeed our own single field English Language and Linguistics. Collectively, such course destinations constitute around 10% of any given progressing cohort.

The next section deals with the performance of these cohorts of students.

Post-IFD performance

Research aims

My interest in finding out how IFD graduates were doing at Brookes was prompted by a mixture of professional curiosity and integrity. As someone who had been involved in the original design of the course, and as the longest-serving Field Chair, I felt I owed it to myself as well as to current and future students.

The aim of my research was to find the answer to a simple question. What did the IFD graduates mean when they said they were doing “alright” whenever I bumped into any of them on campus the following year?


The method, like the question, was simple and obvious: for any given student, keep a record of his or her average score on the IFD and wait for data to emerge from their cumulative performance on their chosen degree course. In other words, compile a set of matched observations longitudinally. Then, look for evidence of a correlation. My hope was that there would be a strong positive correlation, as this would show that the IFD was essentially fulfilling its explicit promise to the student. This promise finds expression in the statement which appears in the marketing literature well as in the student handbook, viz. that the IFD will fully prepare international students for the demands of an undergraduate course. By implication, there is a promise to the university too: these students will be ready and able to work on equal terms with all the other undergraduates on the same course.

In addition, I wanted to find out how many students had been compelled to withdraw (i.e. cases of academic failure) and how many were taking longer than usual to fulfil requirements of Stage I (i.e. had not passed a minimum of 6 modules in their first year of study) and similarly stage II (i.e. longer than 6 terms for courses without placement requirements). These are also obvious measures of how well students are coping.


The first table in this section shows the number of each set of matched pairs of observations and the correlation co-efficient for each set:

IFD average x degree class

IFD average x Stage II average

IFD average x Stage I average

Set 1 = 88 observations

Set 2 = 55 observations

Set 3 = 22 observations

Corr. = 0.62 (quite strong)

Corr. = 0.23 (v. weak)

Corr. = 0.4 (weak)

Academic failures within each progressing cohort can be seen in this table,















and numbers of students who have abandoned their courses (time lapse) or on temporary leave of absence are shown here:















Numbers of current students identified as being ‘behind schedule’ are as follows:





Discussion of findings:

It is satisfying to note that very few IFD graduates have failed degree courses outright. Furthermore, it seems that those who went on to earn their degrees, had good reason to believe that they would do so, given their successful experience on the IFD.

In the first table, Set 1 comprises 88 cases of IFD graduates who remained at Brookes, and who graduated between 1998 and 2001. The matched observations were recorded quantitatively in two tables in a Microsoft Excel© worksheet. Column A contains scores corresponding to averages on the IFD and Column B scores corresponding to those which were used to compute the average used for degree classification. (For those interested in the nuts and bolts of how to do statistical investigations using Excel, there is a detailed description of the steps undertaken in a note appearing at the end of this paper).

At 0.62, the strength of the correlation for this set of data is impressive, and is certainly better than that reported for students with A-levels and their degree results. Boyle et al. (2002) claim that there is “scant evidence of correlation between entry and exit score" with some courses such as Computing, showing correlation coefficient values lower than 0.2. Another statement is worth quoting in this regard:

“Academics will privately confide that A-levels are a poor indicator of eventual university performance.” Boyle et al. (2001:3)

I have heard similar statements to the same effect from several tutors at Brookes.

Against this background, then, the IFD looks as though it is fulfilling its promise.

Set 2 comprises 55 cases of IFD graduates who started their degree course at Brookes in 2000, and who have now completed Stage I (the first year of the undergraduate course) and their first year of Stage II. It is important to note that degree class is determined exclusively by Stage II results, Stage I being seen as a qualifying phase. Again, IFD averages were plotted against average results for Stage II, using the data available.

The strength of correlation for this set is very weak and an inspection of the values for the separate columns reveals that overall, marks were relatively higher for the IFD scores than for the Stage II scores, with a mean of 60.3% for the former and 50.7% for the latter.

Interestingly, the difference between the standard deviations for each collection in the set is less than might be expected in a case of weak correlation. Here, the SDs are 6.26 for the IFD scores and 5.25 for the Stage II scores, indicating that there is very little difference between the two so far as distribution is concerned. The scores quite simply do not match up very well. Some students have high IFD average scores (e.g. 72%) and very low Stage II scores (46%), while others with moderate IFD scores (e.g. 53.5%) have similar Stage II scores (51%).

This finding is at odds with that of the first set, and seems to mirror the A-level situation reported by Boyle et al (op cit.) It is possible to speculate on the causes of the evident discrepancy by considering the opinions of students and tutors.

First of all it seems hardly surprising to discover that students are having to negotiate a much steeper learning curve in Stage II than at the foundation stage. Students themselves describe the Stage II experience as being much harder than Stage I, and academic staff would no doubt be relieved to hear this. After all, it is supposed to be harder. Why some students who performed well at foundation, should apparently find it harder than others who did less well back then, still remains to be explained, however.

When a traditional student with 30 points (three A-grade A levels) ends up with a third class degree, there is talk of ‘early burn-out’ or of them ‘resting on their laurels’. This could also be true of our students. Alternatively, there could be something else, perhaps something to do with the relative unimportance of a particular class of degree for international students returning to situations where degrees are not classified. For these students, completing the course and getting a degree of any sort (a third class honours or an unclassified ordinary) may be the sole objective. Informally, this has been confirmed in conversations with a number of individuals whose records have attracted my attention.

There is also the issue of differentiated or inconsistent performance evidenced in individual records which may also point to reasons for the lack of correlation. The IFD, although rich in choices, still involves a much narrower combination than some joint honours degrees. A student reading Accounting and Education faces a much wider range of specialised modules than they did when they were at the foundation stage. They may perform very well in modules involving numeracy and data-oriented analytical skills, and relatively poorly in modules requiring critical skills. I will explore this point further in a later section of the paper when I look at case studies.

Set 3 comprises a sample (slightly under half) of IFD graduates who joined the undergraduate course in October 2001. All of the students in the sample have satisfactorily completed Stage I, and most (34/38) have recently commenced Stage II.

The correlation between IFD performance and Stage I performance, though stronger than that reported for the Stage II set, is still weak, and this needs to be explained.

Again, we can look at mean scores and SDs to try to understand what is going on. The most striking thing to note is the very high average for both IFD and Stage I scores: 64.8% and 55.8% respectively. SDs of 3.69 and 4.21 for each column of data, indicate unusually small amounts of variation in the distribution of scores. IFD graduates thus seem to be performing less well as a group, but still very well in real terms (55.8% being absolutely “normal” for Brookes (see Lucas and Webster (1998) for a detailed discussion of how Brookes students perform on the undergraduate programme). However, the relatively weak correlation suggests that individuals may be doing better or worse in Stage I than would have been predicted by their IFD average. Why this is so requires explanation.

One possible factor could be the same as that suggested with respect to Set 2, i.e. a greater diversity in the skills being assessed, for this Stage I group, in comparison with those assessed on the IFD.

A second factor, to explain the few cases of those doing better on Stage I than on the IFD, may be the opposite of this, i.e. a concentration on a narrower range of skills.

A third possible factor may be that performance is more inconsistent on the degree course, than on the IFD. In surveying a small number of cases, I found several cases of former IFD students doing very well on modules taken in term 1 of their Business degree course, and then crashing in term 2. When I interviewed two of these students, they both said that they had been “taken by surprise”. They said that I had told them that Stage I would be much harder than foundation, and they had prepared themselves accordingly. They claimed to have spent more time on their assignments and in preparing for their exams in term 1 of Stage I, than at any time on the IFD. When they received higher marks than they expected, they concluded that Stage I would be “the same as foundation”, and slackened off. This suggests poor strategy on the part of the students, rather than a mismatch between the IFD level of difficulty and that of subsequent courses.

Ultsch and Rust (2000) conducted a study of a small group of international students with the intention of analysing the causes of failure and following up with a remedial intervention service. The phenomenon of “slacking” was one of those identified as a cause of failure. Ulstch and Rust identified language and academic skills deficiencies too, but there is nothing in their study to link these to the IFD.

A fourth factor and fifth factor may be the balance of assessment mode, and class size. Both of these may also have affected post-IFD student performance, in ways which could not have been simulated in the IFD.

All foundation modules are organised around the principle of 10-20 students in a class, and mixed mode (exam and coursework) or 100% coursework assessment. The post-IFD student is unlikely to enjoy this kind of experience. Many Stage I (and Stage II) modules involve large class sizes, and 100% exam assessment.

Lucas and Webster (op. cit) found a disturbing amount of evidence to show that student performance suffers greatly when these conditions apply in tandem. It seems reasonable to assume that if IFD students are facing a very different sort of experience, it is hardly surprising to find that a few might do better than they did in the IFD, and a majority worse. This would go a long way to explain the variance in Sets 2 and 3.

A final point to make about Set 3 is to note the fact that success on Stage I is achieved by passing six modules, students being allowed to carry or “trail” two basic modules on to Stage II. This, added to the fact that the results of Stage I do not count towards the degree class, means that students may feel it is unnecessary to exert themselves unduly. (Boyle et al (op cit.) also mention the existence of a similar situation prevalent at Kent and Leeds). Post-IFD students may have actually been more competitive on the IFD than in Stage I. Again, this may help to explain the low correlation for Set 3.

Case studies

I would now like to look at three cases of IFD graduates, each representing the three sets of data investigated above. I have excerpted information directly from the student records for the two consecutive courses.

Case 1
IFD Record

U/G Record (Business & Finance)

M00701 57 (B)

M00711 68 (B+)

M00702 54 (B)

M00704 40 (C)

M00710 63 (B+)

M07607 59 (B)

M00715 61 (B+)

M00719 50 (B)

M07602 12 (F-Resit)

Average over best 8: 56%

Stage I

M07004 Information Analysis. Ex.

M07508 Business Economics Ex.

M07000 Foundtns of M’gment. 59 (B)

M07101 Intro to Accounting 49 (C)

M07406 Contxt& Dev of UK Bus. 64 (B+)

M07008 Intro to Business Law Pass

M07118 Interpreting Financial Acc. 46 (C)

M07005 Data Analysis for Bus. 48 (C)

M07009 Intro to Bus and its Env 49 (C) (double)

Stage II

M07021 Entrepreneurs. and Small Bus 67 (B+)

M07026 Bus Resource M’gment 48 (C)

M07555 Investment. & Intl. Finance. 40 (res) (double)

M07117 Interpreting M’ment Acc Info 40 (res)

M07132 Audit Practice 56 (B)

M07034 Interactive Bus 47 (C)

M07141 Business Finance 46 (C)

M07020 Corporate Strategy 54 (B) (double)

M07051 Environmentally Sustainable Bus 45 (C)

M07133 Audit Theory 50 (B)

M07199 Acc&Finance Diss. 45 (C) (double)

M08709 Microcomputer Applics. 72 (A)*
(*stage I – not counted)

Average over best 15: 48.7% >Third Class Honours

This student performed better on the IFD than on the degree course, and unlike the other students in the set of IFD x degree course graduates (Set 1), there appears to be little correlation between performances. It is nevertheless interesting to note possible evidence of differential skills and abilities at play here. On the IFD, he/she did not choose to take the accounting module M07101, but waited to do this in his/her first year. This means he/she did not avail him/herself of a particular pathway preparation option. The fact that he/she did reasonably well on modules involving discussion and description on both courses, (e.g. M07607 Understanding Europe (59%) and M0715 International Relations (61%) on the IFD, and M07406 Context and Development of UK Business (64%) and M07020 Corporate Strategies (54%) on the Business and Finance course) suggests a degree of correlation that the rather poor performances on modules involving reference to stocks and shares (strictly ‘financial’ matters in the narrow sense) actually obscure. It is not so much that this has been a bridge too far – the student did not fail after all. It is more likely that the IFD prepared the student for the general environment of business, but not at all for the specific discipline of finance. The issue of how specialist foundation courses should be, is not one that I wish to discuss here, but I recognize that it is certainly of interest and importance to those of us who committed to improving our foundation courses.

Case 2
 IFD Record U/G Record (Sociology and Education)

M00707 61 (B)

M00714 67 (B+)

M00706* 77 (A)

M00710 77 (A)

M00713 65 (B+)

M08709 69 (B+)

M00715 70 (A)

M00502** 52 (B)

M00719 80 (A)

Average over best 8: 70.75%

*Issues in the Soc Sciences – no longer running

**Women’s experience in Britain – no longer running

Stage I

M06102 Indivl in Ed. 57 (B)

M07702 Indiv and Soc. 55 (B)

M07801 Intro to Soc. 43 (C)

M06002 Mking Snse of World. 57 (B)

M06104 Ed. Ctnxts . 49 (C)

M07008 Found Soc Theory 63 (B+)

M06003 Obs Young Ch.. 57 (B)

M06106 Shaping Ed. Pol. 58 (B)

M07804 Intro to Soc Res. 61 (B+) (double)

Stage II

M06134 Soc Wld Chdhd. 53 (B)

M06151 Young Ch & Fams. 63 (B+)

M07823 Contem Soc Theory 66 (B+)

M06166 Adult Learning 53 (B)

M06177 Young Ch Learning 63 (B+)

M06154 Health Iss in Ed Contxt 57 (B) M07833 Gender & Soc 57 (B)

M07836 Res. Meths 53 (B) (double)

Average over best 9: 57.5%

Now, this case is of great interest because the student involved was clearly a star on the IFD course. Even though the performance has not been subsequently replicated, there is much that is re-assuring. The student was encouraged by the marks obtained on the IFD to enter a joint honours degree course in Sociology and Education. These fields are perhaps quite daunting to an international student entering with a foundation diploma qualification, dominated as they are by British (more specifically, English) students with traditional entry qualifications.

As the record clearly shows, he/she is doing well, and with a little more effort and he/she is likely to succeed in getting a 2:1.

Case 3
 IFD Record U/G Record (Computing Science)

M12100 Lis/Sp Skills 55 (B)

M12101 Text Comp Skills 59 (B)

M12102 Text Prod Skills 55 (B)

M00710 (Ex)

M00711 (Ex)

M00712* (Ex)

M00706** 66 (B+)

M00744 50 (B)

M08608 83 (A)

M00713 65 (B+)

M08709 71 (A)

M00719 52 (B)

Average over best 8: 64%

Stage I

M08001 Comp Sys. 61 (B+)

M08600 Math Methods I 94 (A)

M08709 Mic Apps. 39 (Res)

M08003 Struc Prog. 72 (A)

M08005 Intro to Inf Sys 74 (A)

M08606 Discrete Maths 91 (A)

M08608 Math Methods II 89 (A)

M08006 ‘C’ & Unix 73 (A)

M08008 Const Comp Sfware 85 (A)

M08609 Intro to Maths 89 (A)

Average over best 8: 83.37%

This case demonstrates a particular type of mismatch between performance on the IFD and on the degree course. Unlike the first two cases, this person has actually done significantly better on the latter than on the former. This exemplifies the point about the subsequent narrowing of focus. This student took a one-term intensive English language course the components of which are considered to be equivalent to the language and academic skills modules featuring on the IFD (viz. M00710, M00711 and M00712). Credit was duly awarded for this effort, and marks were transferred to the IFD, with appropriate exemptions in place.

It is easy to see how the mismatch has come about, given the very high marks achieved on the mathematics and computing elements of both courses. There are only two of these in the first and nine in the second. What is undeniable, however, is the fact that this student has proceeded from a broad-based educational experience, in which his/her performance was differentiated among language and communication skills, humanities, computing and mathematics. Although his/her strengths were most evident in the latter two areas, there were creditable performances in all of the modules associated with the former.

This case illustrates the significance of the breadth of subject and skills provision on any foundation course claiming (as the IFD does) to be able to cater for students with a wide range of educational aspirations. There should be linguistic acculturation (EAP), academic acculturation (study skills), and subject orientation (content modules), but also something more, something to feed the imagination and interest of the student. Call it educational extension of the non-instrumental kind. These four processes should not be thought of as being limited to association with specific modules or course units in the way I have crudely suggested. Some modules certainly fulfil more than one function.

Issue and Problems: post- IFD student performance and the IFD course

A final point I would like to raise in relation to Case 3 starts with the issue of high marks for maths and computing modules. IFD students who are planning to enter fields other than maths or computing are actively discouraged from opting for any of the basic maths and computing modules which feature on List A. This is done through statements in the IFD Student Handbook, and in guidance sessions dealing with programme composition conducted by the Field Chair and by Personal Tutors.

At the heart of this policy is a mixture of good intentions, prejudice, and fear. I would argue that, in our quest for quality, we are often guilty of over-estimating the seriousness of problems our foundation students face after they progress to the next stage. Also, we may be guilty of involvement in nefarious sort of collaboration or at least acquiescence, in accepting characterisations of such problems by colleagues in receiving schools.

On the one hand, all of the ICELS staff associated with the IFD want students to choose well-balanced programmes, and, with the best intentions, will try to influence student choice to this effect.

On the other hand, they may over-react to a student who plans to do a degree in Business Studies wanting to take (M08600) Basic Mathematical Methods if they have already covered the syllabus in their previous education. This is influenced by the attitude of some of the Admissions Tutors in the receiving schools, who would regard such programme choices with sceptical disdain. The dominant perception is that the student is adopting a stratagem so as to avoid basic modules that will test his/her linguistic abilities or challenge his/her critical faculties. This student is looking for an easy route into the university. Facing this view, the Field Chair is put under pressure to close the portal.

The group to suffer most from this perception are IFD students from Asia, particularly the Chinese. The Field Chair has to face the possibility that a Chinese student may achieve fairly low marks of between 45% and 50% for English language, Study Skills and Foundation Business modules, yet still reach the bar height of 55% because of an exceptionally high score on one of the basic maths modules available.

Reports of disgruntled tutors in the receiving school, e.g.. the School of Business, having to deal with students who are described as “disastrous” “woefully inadequate and ill-adapted” begin to circulate. The credibility of the IFD begins to suffer. Fear pervades the ICELS common room. Something has to be done.

Goodlad’s schemata of heresies in HE (Goodlad, 1995) can be used to provide an explanation of how institutional tensions of the sort discussed above, may develop.

Foundation courses such as the IFD may be seen only in terms of facilitating entry, and this over-emphasizes their purely utilitarian aspects. This is clearly erroneous if the arguments about the multifaceted nature of such courses can be shown to be true, as per the discussion of Case 3 above.

In 2000, there was great concern that the relatively large intake of Chinese students on to the IFD would somehow dilute the quality of the graduate cohort. The IFD Field Committee decided to implement a significant change in the balance of the course, by increasing the provision of EAP-related modules. Much of this was prompted by fears of a “Furedi threnody” (Furedi, 1999). We were afraid our colleagues in the receiving schools would follow the Furedi line, and describe the language proficiency of IFD graduates as “wholly inadequate for following degree courses” echoing Furedi’s lament about widening access to linguistically unprepared international students.

Effecting changes in the IFD was accompanied by tension within the department. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to see another of Goodlad’s heresies at work, that of pedagogism, defined as:

Overplanning of education or over-dependence on some theory of learning, to the extent that the tentative and provisional nature of educational theory is lost to sight. (Goodlad 1995: 103)

For “educational theory” substitute “language learning theory” and imagine a group of people arguing about the merits and demerits of this or that approach to form-focussed instruction. What would be the costs and benefits of adding a module to deal with the perceived language deficit of Chinese students, how could these be measured, and what consequences this would have for the programme as a whole? These were questions which provoked intense debate at that time.

The issue of how well students do after completing the IFD course is thus closely intertwined with the issue of the effectiveness of the course itself.


I hope to have shown in this paper that between 1994 and 2000, the IFD was a demonstrably effective course. Using simple measures such as subsequent failure rates and a product-moment correlation of average scores on foundation and subsequent courses, the evidence suggests that for the students concerned, the IFD did the job it was designed to do.

Taking the pulse of those IFD graduates who have yet to complete their degree courses has revealed a more erratic pattern. Reasons for the lack of correlation have been discussed, and a number of possible factors identified. These can be summarised as limitation of focus on the part of the student (only interested in getting a degree) and differences in the nature of the educational experiences during foundation and afterwards.

It may well be the case that we in ICELS have to accept that the IFD is now doing a different job than was hitherto the case. This does not mean that it is no longer effective as a preparatory experience. It may mean, however, that it is more of a separate experience than we had perhaps planned when the course was validated eight years ago.

Future research plans

There are large gaps in the data, and much more work needs to be done if these are to be filled.

Firstly, there are too many cases of missing records. The data for 1995-1997 is almost certainly incomplete, and it will take a lot of goodwill on the part of staff in Oxford Brookes Systems Office to track down names and records of all of the students who remained at Brookes beyond their foundation course.

Secondly, there is no data about students from the IFD who have gone elsewhere. How did our graduates do in other institutions? One institution, UMIST, sent us a courtesy letter informing us that one of our IFD graduates had obtained a 2:2. This was the only piece of external data which figured in Set 1.

Thirdly, I have not carried out any comparative studies. The work of Boyle and his colleagues at Kent and Leeds (Boyle et al, op. cit.) on entrance qualification profiles and exit degree class, included within its scope not only A-level qualifications but also non-standard qualifications. They found that there was little difference between the groups entering with the former and those with the latter, finding low correlations for both.

It has been put to me by colleagues in the receiving schools that international students who enter Oxford Brookes from foundation courses in other institutions do better than IFD graduates. This is a direct challenge to the value of the IFD from within, and can only be met with further investigation, using comparative data.

Finally, it is certainly the case that I will need to carry out some qualitative research to complement, and contextualise the work already done. In particular, I would like to conduct interviews with students, possibly along the lines suggested by Ultsch and Rust, to cross-reference the existing numerical data relating to performance, with commentary and explanation. I envisage extending this aspect of the research to tutors working with post-IFD students, to hear their side of the story.

It promises to be an interesting extension to this tale, one of educational pilgrims rather than rakes.


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Note 1: using Excel for statistical investigations

Open an Excel worksheet by clicking on the X-shaped button on your toolbar. You will then see a worksheet arranged in cells. Enter your data in columns A and B. (Miyako’s scores on X and Y, Muhammed’s etc etc.) Click on the ‘Insert’ button on your toolbar, and then scroll down the menu until you see ‘ƒx Function’. Click on this and then specify the category you need. Averages, standard deviations and correlations can be reached by first clicking on the ‘Statistical’ category and scrolling down the menu until you come to AVERAGE, STDEV and CORR. You will be asked to identify the cells in the data that you want to submit and so you need to respond to the prompt which appears as a new window. It asks you to enter numbers into the following formula: A:xx;B:yy. A and B represent the columns and x and y the numbers of rows – not how many, but which set of rows. So if you have 50 pairs of observations you enter A:2-51;B:2-51. This is because the first cells in each column will be labelled A and B. Once you have done this, the statistic you want will appear in a new window, which you can then place in a cell at the bottom of your table.