Growing autonomy on accreditation looks set to close gap between higher and further education
A college has made a bid for a place in the history books as it applies for the right to award its own degrees.
New College Durham will apply next month to become the first FE institution to give out foundation degrees without accreditation from a university. It will be considered by the Privy Council which acts as a regulator of universities.
If the move is approved, the college will undergo a six-year probationary period before gaining the powers to award the two-year, work-related degrees permanently.
Progressing to an honours degree generally requires a further year of study. This would still have to be accredited by a university even if it was completed in an FE college.
With the potential for other colleges to follow suit, the news could herald the most significant change in higher education since the new universities in 1992.
The new degree powers - which would apply to colleges that have worked closely with employers to create a qualification - follow recent developments allowing colleges to award their own qualifications below degree level independently of exam boards.
Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister, said: "I want to ensure that our further and higher education systems are as flexible and responsive as possible to meet the needs of learners and employers. This will allow the leading providers of higher education in the further education sector greater autonomy, if they can show that they have earned it. Foundation degrees continue to grow in popularity as both students and employers appreciate the innovative nature of these qualifications."
A report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England said that there are 72,000 students on foundation degrees this year, and if growth trends continue, the target of 100,000 foundation degree students by 2010 will be met.
To apply for the new powers, colleges need to fill in a 60-page application form and provide supporting evidence before going on to be inspected by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.
Colleges are expected to show clear progression routes to honours degrees. The two-year foundation degrees are calculated to be the equivalent of the first two years at university.
The new powers further blur the line between colleges and universities. Some FE colleges have become higher education institutions because the majority of their income is derived from courses at level 4 (lower degree level) and above.
John Widdowson, principal of New College Durham, said: "We will respond to demand from students and employers. Sometimes honours degrees don't really fit into what students want to do, like complementary therapies for example. We want to extend the range of foundation degrees into areas where we know there is demand."
Mr Widdowson said the college wanted to develop degrees for vocational areas not served by higher education, including service industries such as hairdressing and personal fitness, as well as developing a higher education route for those who have completed apprenticeships, offering them broader, less job-specific skills. But he said the final decision about the courses developed will depend on the collaboration of businesses.
The Association of Colleges says foundation degrees have proved their effectiveness at encouraging people to continue in education.
Martin Doel, the association's new chief executive, said: "This new power to validate their own foundation degrees will give colleges even more flexibility to meet business needs, and build on their strong track record of engaging with employers. It is also an important step towards increasing access for those who would not have traditionally entered higher education, while expanding the availability of alternative routes to university. A third of current foundation degree students progress to further learning, the majority on an honours degree."