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How to choose the right university foundation programme

Posted by: Jo Carter - 16 October 2017 - MPW Cambridge - Read time: 5 mintues

A university foundation programme (UFP) is a year-long course designed to prepare students for progression to an undergraduate level degree course. Whether or not a foundation programme would suit you is a debate for another article but for those who have committed to this route, there are still some decisions to be made. There are a range of UFPs available and the entry requirements, course content and likely route of progression vary widely between them so it is important to examine options and select a course that best aligns with your future plans. This article aims to guide students and their parents through the key points of consideration when choosing a UFP course.

There are a number of key areas to focus on when choosing a foundation programme, including:

  • Course content
  • Course structure
  • Entry requirements
  • Duration
  • Progression opportunities
  • Teaching facilities
  • Living

Course content

UFP courses are designed to prepare students for specific degree specialisms so the first thing to do is decide on your intended progression and ensure that the course you choose will facilitate this. As well as subject-only courses, some have a heavy focus on English and devote a high percentage of modules to improving students’ understanding and use of the language prior to beginning a degree course. The exact format will vary between courses but as a general rule students will complete compulsory modules on topics such as ‘academic writing’ or ‘research skills’. In addition to the English modules students will either be enrolled onto compulsory subject modules or permitted to select the subject modules that suit them from a list.

Course structure

Most university foundation courses are modular. Students follow a number of compulsory modules and are sometimes permitted to select other modules from a list. On some courses, each module has equal value whereas others are divided into ‘major’ or ‘minor’ modules. The exact structure and organisation of a course is in some ways inconsequential; if a course fulfils progression requirements for a student this is more important than the exact method of its organisation. However, it is worth familiarising yourself with the course structure in advance of enrolment to ensure that you are satisfied that it will suit you and that you will be able to select the options that you want during study.

Entry requirements

Entry requirements vary between courses. Some demand a reasonably high level of English proficiency, usually demonstrated through a requisite IELTS score; programmes devoting a large percentage of study to English language will of course require a lower score. Courses tend to be pitched academically at a similar level to a final-year A level course and students are sometimes required to be the equivalent age to their A level peers: 17 or above. This means that if they progress directly to university they will be 18 or over, the same age as the UK students beginning a course in the same year.

Students will need to demonstrate their ability to cope with the academic elements of the course. Usually this will involve providing evidence of qualifications such as GCSEs, or the equivalent of these. Course providers are used to working with students from all over the world and are familiar with various international qualifications and their approximate correspondence to UK certificates. If you are unsure as to whether you meet the requirements for a course, the best thing to do is to contact a provider directly and discuss your situation with them.


Most courses are one year in length, beginning in September/October and ending in April/May. This is in line with the UK academic year and means that students who complete the programme can begin university the following September. This time frame will suit many students, although those from the Southern Hemisphere whose academic year runs concurrent with the calendar year may wish to start their UFP course in January. Some providers do offer this as an option so it is worth exploring options if beginning in January is something you would like to do.

Progression Opportunities

University foundation programmes prepare students for particular universities and for particular degree courses. Some courses are quite general and students completing these will have a range of options available to them upon graduating. Students need to be aware from the start whether they will be able to progress to only one particular university upon graduating or whether they will have a number of options. Many students are keen to study at a Russell Group university so if this is important to you, ensure that this will be possible upon completion of your foundation course.

If an institution “guarantees” a place at a UK university, make sure that you understand the conditions of this guarantee. Unless a programme is affiliated with a university it may not be able to offer 100% certainty on progression in practice.

Teaching facilities

Some universities teach university foundation programmes themselves. Students attending these programmes essentially join university a year early, complete the programme and then progress into year one of an undergraduate degree, either at the same university or to another institution. Students joining a university should bear in mind that taking a foundation course is not the same as starting university – they may not be close to the main campus and may not live with undergraduates. However, they will be able to settle into a location and get to know a city. If students are certain they would like to progress to a particular institution it may make sense to complete a foundation programme at that university.

The alternative to studying at a university is to do so at a school or college. Sometimes, a university will write the specification for a programme and set the examinations. They will then approve training providers to teach the programme to students. Students who have successfully completed the programme would usually then expect to progress to the partner university.

Enrolling at a school or college means that students are still treated as though they are school-age and as such can expect benefits such as additional pastoral support and supervision. Their parents or guardians will receive communication about their wellbeing and progress. If they enrol at boarding school or are staying in supervised accommodation they will have the additional support of on-site staff to help them settle in, as well as assistance with things like catering and laundry. This gradual adjustment to independent living allows students to ‘settle in’ to the UK prior to beginning undergraduate life.


The final things that students and their families need to consider when choosing a course are the practicalities of living for a year whilst the student completes that course. In terms of location, London is one of the most practical options with easy access to a number of airports as well as being a vibrant and interesting city to study in. On the other hand it is also the most expensive place in the UK to live and its size might be daunting to new students. Oxford and Cambridge are probably the most famous cities internationally outside of London so students might be attracted by them. They are smaller (Cambridge especially is very small) but can become quite crowded and touristy at certain times of the year and students who are used the lifestyle and opportunities of a larger city might find them frustrating. Decisions will mostly need to be made in this regard based on personal preference and requirements.

Choosing the right international foundation programme is a daunting task and it can be difficult to explore options and reach a decision, especially for those who are attempting to research from overseas. Unfortunately, the only way to find out more about the programmes is to investigate each individually as there is no one single website summarising all of the options. MPW offer two university foundation programmes: the University of the Arts London Foundation Diploma in Art and Design, available at our MPW London college; and the NCUK International Foundation Year available at MPW London, MPW Birmingham and MPW Cambridge. If you have any questions about either of these courses, please do not hesitate to contact our international team to discuss this further.