The Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, has decided to sidestep the universities in his effort to create Foundation Degrees as a vocational alternative to the traditional degree. It amounts to the most radical change in further and higher education for 15 years, since the old polytechnics gained university status, leaving a huge gap in vocational higher education.
A senior Government source told FE Focus there was concern over the slow development of the new degrees, which were being hampered by the stipulation that colleges offer them through the universities "which too often had their own agenda". So far, only just over 14,000 students had signed-up for them.
But the new plan was also a considerable vote of confidence for the colleges, he said.
"About 11 per cent (137,000) of all HE is already delivered in FE colleges and we have identified many institutions that are just as high a quality as universities. Some are better," the source said.
Legislation will follow swiftly if the measures survive the passage of the Bill. Necessary funding reforms will be in place as well as new powers to enable the Privy Council, which controls degree-awarding powers, to open the door to the colleges by next September.
Colleges that seek degree-awarding powers will be expected to have strong partnerships with industry and commerce. They will also be subject to new quality control arrangements. "We have to have tough quality controls to avoid Mickey Mouse degrees," the government source said.
Plans for a high quality degree equivalent award for FE colleges were revealed last month in FE Focus. Colleges and unions have welcomed the proposal but with some caveats. Paul Mackney, the joint general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "We would expect standards to be commensurate with the first two years of a university degree and to lead to a third year at a university for students who want it."