A new body that would accredit colleges to develop courses up to foundation-degree level in partnership with employers is being considered by ministers.
The Association of Colleges is calling on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Colleges to create a Technical Education Accreditation Council (TEAC).
This follows a BIS consultation outlining proposals to rekindle a polytechnic-type model for awarding vocational qualifications. The consultation document discusses resurrecting the role of the former Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA), which awarded degrees when post-92 universities were polytechnics.
The proposals are understood to have caught the eye of Jo Johnson, the new universities and science minister. The move, if approved, would also give colleges greater powers to accredit their own courses without having to form partnerships with universities.
Nick Davy, higher education policy manager at the AoC, said that changes to the labour market meant there was growing demand for higher-level skills. But the current higher education system was “very much dominated by a full-time, residential, academic model”, he told Times Higher Education.
A wide-ranging BIS consultation on vocational education closed last week. The consultation document says that the 1992 decision to allow polytechnics to become universities was “not wrong”, but acknowledges that it “created a long term structural gap in skills infrastructure – and contributed to a decline in the perceived value of technical skills pathways”.
It goes on to ask: “Should a new overarching vocationally focused body be established to grant higher vocational awarding powers?”
Mr Davy downplayed the comparison with the CNAA. An AoC paper argues that the TEAC would “accredit institutions to develop awards not [as the CNAA did] accredit and validate awards”.
Referring to the strengths of English higher education, Mr Davy said: “People always say its autonomy, its ability to make its own awards, its ability when [institutions] are developing employer-facing programmes to negotiate directly with that employer.
“What we are arguing is…why doesn’t the government look at giving autonomy to colleges?”
Mr Davy suggested that “most university teachers would say there’s a percentage of their students who would do far better” under a more “practical teaching and learning experience”, rather than the “fairly traditional lecture-seminar-essay type experience, which is still the norm in most English universities”.
FE colleges are experiencing severe financial insecurity under continuing government cuts. A report published this week by Professor Alison Wolf warns that the sector could “vanish into history” unless funding is addressed. Some see expansion into higher education as a way of increasing their income.
But the plans were criticised by the Million+ thinktank. Chief executive Pam Tatlow said: “There is no real necessity for a new CNAA which would create an unnecessary additional bureaucracy.
“There is plenty of scope to develop and accredit new qualifications under the present system. The more interesting question is how we foster collaboration between universities and colleges rather than competition between the two, which was a feature of the coalition government’s approach.”