Keystone logo

What is a Foundation Year and Why Study One?

Iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright knew more than a few things about laying down some solid foundations. But none of his incredible achievements would have been possible without a powerful vision. As the man himself said, "I know the price of success: dedication, hard work, and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen." But what if you haven't got the formal qualifications to start building your own dream future? What if the only thing you really need is a chance to prove yourself? Well, that's precisely what foundation years are for!

Oct 5, 2019
  • Student Tips
What is a Foundation Year and Why Study One?

What is a foundation year?

Foundation years are year-long introductory programs designed to help students develop the skills, knowledge, and confidence for a fully-fledged three-year undergraduate degree. Also referred to as gateway degrees or 'year zero' programs, foundation years are usually integrated into degree programs. However, unlike foundation degrees, where the students can often skip ahead to the second year of study, students who complete a foundation year are required to start from the beginning of their chosen degree.

Foundation years play an essential part in helping international students adjust to academic and cultural life in a different country. Studying abroad is exciting and can open up a world of opportunities for students, but it is also a huge commitment and can be an overwhelming experience for even the most confident academic adventurers. Foundation years for international students include language courses, giving new arrivals a sometimes vital opportunity to improve their communication skills before starting a 'proper' degree. It is also a great way to make friends, get to know the place you are studying, and learn the intricacies of your new host culture without the added pressure that comes with starting a three-year undergraduate degree.

Why go for a foundation year?

For international students, foundation years are a great way to get yourself settled into a totally new environment. In a sense, they make sure that when it comes time to start the actual degree, you are ready to hit the ground running, allowing you to fulfill your maximum potential.

But some international students might be impatient to start their academic careers as soon as possible. After all, a foundation year means delaying long term career goals for another 12 months. It also means another year away from your home country. However, taking that extra year to prepare yourself for studying abroad might turn out to best decision you can make.

Feeling as prepared as possible means you can dedicate more time and energy to your studies, which inevitably leads to better grades. And considering some of the large expenses involved in studying abroad, taking an extra year to make sure you get real value for your money is an excellent investment of your time.

We all mature at different rates. Some people are lucky enough to know what they want to do from a young age, while others have a natural ability to focus on whatever task is in front of them. However, for many young people, things aren't this straight forward. And if you don't really know what you want to be when you 'grow up', making the right academic choices in high school is by no means an easy task!

For example, some young people need a few years of real-world experience before they can begin to understand who they are and what they want to do. Others might want to travel or simply enjoy a few years without the added pressure of academic expectations. Either way, foundation years are an excellent way for those late bloomers to get into higher education.

Where will I have to study?

As a general rule, foundation courses lead directly to an undergraduate degree, which means you will be studying at the same university that administers the degree program. However, some foundation programs, especially in art and other creative subjects, are taught from specialist colleges. In such programs, you will then move onto a more formal university setting at the beginning of the next academic year. And remember, one of the best things about a foundation program is that it gives you a taster of what's to follow. So if you feel like you've picked the wrong subject or the wrong university, speak to the admissions board. They can help you find a more suitable path.

Entry requirements

The entry requirements for foundation years vary depending on where you study and your personal circumstances. For UK students who have not lived up to their full academic potential, a willingness to learn and to make the most of this big opportunity is usually more important than any formal qualifications.

Even if you have missed large parts of your schooling for health and other personal reasons, speak to somebody from the university or college. Many institutions have disrupted studies schemes to help young people get back on track. You may need to provide some medical certificates or attend an interview, but again, this is a great chance to show off your untapped potential.

Mature students (generally considered as anyone over 21) can draw from their real-world experience during the application process. You may have opened yourself up to new experiences by traveling the world, served your local community with volunteer work, or supported yourself financially since leaving education. You might think these have very little to do with formal education, but all the examples show that you have the personal skills to succeed at university. Namely, independence, open-mindedness, and a willingness to take on a challenge -- and qualities like this are often much harder to teach than many of the formulas or theories you will learn in academia.

Entry requirements for international students are usually more formal. Again, these vary depending on what or where you study, but as a general rule, international students need to produce the following qualifications and documents:

  • An International English Language Testing System (IELTS) score of 4.5 or equivalent
  • Secondary school certificate and transcripts
  • Reference letter from your high school teacher
  • Personal statement
  • Scanned copy of valid passport and student visa

Do I have to pay fees? 

This depends. If the foundation year is part of a degree, you'll have to pay an additional year of tuition fees which will be included in your overall student loan payments. However, some universities charge lower fees for foundation years, while others offer additional bursary payments. Separate foundation courses at UK sixth forms or colleges are often classed as further education. If you are under 19, you will not have to pay any fees on such programs, but this means that you are not eligible for any additional financial support.

Foundation year success stories

Michael Delgarno left a further education college in the UK with two Es at A-Level. Rather than accepting the first clearing offer, Michael did a foundation year at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) before moving onto a web development program. Three years later, he graduated with a first-class degree. He's now got the formal qualification for entry-level development positions which start at around £30,000 a year in the UK, with the potential to earn significantly more as he progresses. Not bad for a guy who left college with two Es! When asked about the benefits of his foundation year, Delgarno said, "It gave me a really good foundation for a degree. I felt a lot more confident and able to do the things that the university wanted, like writing essays and doing references and citations."

Michael's story is not uncommon. Rob Gresham completed a foundation year in social sciences at Northumbria University, in Newcastle, UK, and believes the introduction into university life helps students makes better long term academic choices. He said, "I would recommend doing a foundation year to those who perhaps struggled with their A-levels and need a year to get better at studying. Or for those that don't really know what they want to do – loads of people on my foundation course went onto to do something completely different, so it's a good way to keep your options open."

Remember, missing out on your predicted grades isn't the end of the world, and it certainly isn't the end of your academic path. So if you feel you have what it takes to succeed at university, enroll in a foundation year to prove yourself right...

Ashley Murphy


After graduating with a degree in English literature and creative writing, Ashley worked as a bartender, insurance broker, and teacher. He became a full-time freelance writer in 2016. He lives and writes in Manchester, England.

Find a program in these categories