Keele Icons – The Foundation Year
When I arrived in 1971, Keele was unique among English universities in having a four year Honours degree
As the prospectus for the year states “Keele was founded with the conscious aim to break away from the pattern of the specialised single honours degree, and to break down as far as possible the divisions between different branches of study”
What this meant in practice was that in the first year (Foundation Year or FY as it was universally known) all students followed a course of lectures common to all and did tutorial work tailored to individual preferences
The prospectus again (note the sexism!): “The Foundation Year provides for every student the broad context of human knowledge in which his later specialised studies will be set, and introduces him to the scope, methods and interconnections of many of the main branches of University studies”. Noble and lofty aims, most of which were wasted on the majority of FYs (as we were called)
The lecture course consisted of 232 lectures spread over 22 week. with most weeks having 10 lectures, 2 a day, one at 9 and the second at 11, each lasting an hour. The course had three elements: the ‘main thread’ tracing the general development of human progress from the time of ancient civilisations to the present; a ‘discursive treatment’ in which specific lectures were given on particular problems and developments; and ‘recurrent topics’ always of a Friday and falling under 6 different headings
The lectures covered everything from Astronomy to Zoology. The first 6 were delivered by the charismatic David Ingram and covered ‘The earth as an Object in Space’. These always filled the FY Lecture Theatre, as we FYs were still enthusiastic, but thereafter attendances dropped as the twin attractions of drink and sleep took priority! Amazingly attendance was not mandatory!
Here’s a sample of lectures from a week chosen at random, week 15: Nutrition and Diet (delivered by that start of Gardeners’ Question Time Professor Alan Gemmell), Status and problems of developing countries (Professor Les Fishman) and Aspects of religion in the twentieth century (‘Quiet flows the’ Don Nicholl)
Each week students had to attend a Discussion Group and, during the course of the year write 9 essays. As these essays tended to be similar year after year, there was a roaring trade in past essays. In fact some enterprising student went as far as publishing a collection for sale, which got him a stern reprimand form the authorities, but also made him a lot of money! At the end of the year there were three exam papers in Humanities, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences and during the year there were Objective Examinations, an hour in length and consisting of 50 multiple choice questions. As Keele was, I think, more interested in the process rather than outcomes, few students failed this aspect of FY
Alongside the FY lectures were weekly classes of two types, Sessionals and Terminals. As the names imply, Sessionals lasted the length of the Academic year and we had to take 2 of them, while we had to choose a different Terminal each term. You couldn’t take a Sessional in a subject you’d studied at A level, while Terminals were either subjects you had studied before or, if not generally taught at school (Philosophy for example), subjects you were interested in doing as part of your joint honours study. So basically you had to study 5 subjects, at least one from the three main groups of subjects; Humanities, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences. In addition, if you hadn’t taken a Natural Science at A level, you had to study one as a Sessional
My Sessionals were American Studies and Geology, while my Terminals were History, Law and Philosophy. Somehow, like most students, I managed to survive, and even enjoy, the unfamiliar subjects, though I suspect Geology was a pretty close run thing! What FY enabled me, and many others, to do was try out unfamiliar subjects and change what I’d gone to do. I’d applied to do History and Geography, but ended up doing History and Law
I’ve spoken to many, many Keeleites about FY and an almost universal regret is that, looking back, we just didn’t take advantage academically of what was a brilliant concept. There WERE students who attended every single FY lecture, but they were few and very far between. I think I managed to attend about half of them (usually the 11 o’clock ones!)
The beginning of the end of FY came in 1973, when the first intake of ‘T’ students appeared. These were freshers who went straight into a joint, or even single, honours degree. Most of the ‘T’ students were instantly envious of their FY peers and I’m sure many tried to transfer. Successive governments’ education cuts meant that the luxury of a four year fully funded course was now doomed. I don’t know when it was finally abolished (maybe someone reading this can enlighten me), but I do know that I was one of hundreds, if not thousands of Keele students who enjoyed it as one of the best years of their lives!