Later this month, a steering group representing colleges will meet education officials to look at the smallprint of the Government's two-year Foundation Degree , the new vocational route into higher education. For more than two years this group has been developing its own qualification: the College Diploma, a new over-arching award for further education. It is due to be piloted in September.
The Foundation Degree pursues Tony Blair's aim that half of all young people should be in higher education by the time they are 30. It will, says David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, "provide an accessible and flexible building block for lifelong learning".
The vocational emphasis of the degree is welcomed by FE because it builds on the work done on the diploma. But unlike the diploma, the foundation degree will be rooted in higher education. So where does FE fit into this?
The Government wants the degree to be provided by universities and higher education colleges; FE would be part of a network of providers offering the qualification at a more local level.
Advocates of FE's taking a stronger lead include the chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, David Melville who, as vice chancellor of Middlesex University, was an architect of the idea of a foundation degree. Last year a report by the Government's skills task force highlighted an "extraordinary plethora and incoherence of vocational qualifications," confusing employers, training providers and individuals. The College Diploma is not, insist its prime movers, just one more qualification. It is intended to be an umbrella award to cover this muddle.
At a conference organised by Further Education Development Agency last summer, it was claimed the diploma would create demand for post-16 education and training and help raise skill levels. Students aged 19 and over can gain the full award, while those under 19 can gain credits towards it. It is seen as particularly applicable to adult learners, who could build up credits towards the award. It would also provide a stepping stone from FE into universities and into employment.
Although David Blunkett's proposals stem from the same underlying ideas, they have raised real issues for those developing the diploma. Before the Government's plans were announced last month, there were concerns that if this work was swept into the Government's own proposals, who would have ownership: further or higher education?
Paul Sokoloff, assistant director and head of policy at Edexcel, an aarding body backing the College Diploma, warned that whereas colleges need an award which encourages learners, the Foundation Degree can be exclusive.
"It can be the award achieved by the top 10 per cent. That's against the whole ethos of college existence.
"They're seeking something which is a rite of passage for college students. You have got GCSE as a rite of passage at 16, A-levels at 18, your degree at 21. But FE hasn't got anything."
Another issue is access to employment. The diploma has been developed not only as a stepping stone into higher education, but also into work. Individual colleges have been liaising with local employers. The steering group has been talking to national training organisations about how to tailor the award to their particular industries.
Then there is the timeframe issue. Integral to the diploma is flexibility, allowing adult learners to leave with a certain number of credits and return when it suits them. In contrast, the degree looks much more prescriptive.
Phil Butler, a manager at City College Birmingham, has been at the heart of the College Diploma programme since it began and heads the steering group. Although the fundamental ideas behind the Government's proposal and the diploma are the same, he says, they are for very different markets. And he believes they can work well together.
"An associate degree is level 4, so if you take the Government's main priority at level 3 or below - it's lifelong learning, widening participation and inclusive education - that hasn't changed. So anything that helps with that will actually be recognised."
Chris Hughes, chief executive of FEDA, has welcomed the Government's proposals, although it was a cautious welcome. "The Government talks about drawing together further and higher education and the world of work. I'd love to see what that means, and how FE and HE are going to work together. Clearly this must replace HND in due course - a lot of that goes on in FE.
"We must make sure there's proper engagement by FE in this, because it really does build on the work of the college diploma and exactly targets the right client group."
WHERE THE DIPLOMA FITS IN.
Entry level Certificates of achievement for those below GCSE standard.
Level 1 Foundation level - GCSE grades D-G, foundation GNVQ and NVQ level 1, credits for College Diploma.
Level 2 Intermediate level - GCSE grades A-C, intermediate GNVQ and NVQ level 2, credits for College Diploma.
Level 3 Advanced level - A-level, advanced GNVQ and NVQ level 3, the new College Diploma.
Level 4 Higher level - degree and NVQ level 4Level 5 Higher level - post-graduate and NVQ level 5