The Government this week opened the way for further education colleges to become universities with proposals to change the rules governing their status.
According to the proposals, institutions will need to have breadth of provision as well as sufficient student numbers and high-quality teaching, but they will not need to carry out research in order to become universities.
The criteria for degree-awarding powers does not reflect "the legitimate roles of those outside the university sector in providing high-quality higher education learning," says the HE White Paper, published this week.
Ministers said the bulk of university expansion will come through two-year work-focused foundation degrees, which will be delivered mainly in FE colleges and will attract funding in preference to traditional three-year courses.
A new network known as Foundation Degree Forward, which will be run by the universities, will validate foundation degrees in colleges. Holders of the qualifications will be able to use the titles FDA or FDSc, depending on whether their awards are arts or science-based.
FD students will be eligible for bursaries to cover their maintenance costs or tuition fees. Individual rates have not yet been spelt out but the Government will provide pound;10 million in 2004-5, and double that the following year.
A network of 20 Knowledge Exchanges will target business needs and promote skills development, and consortia of universities and colleges will be invited to bid for the pound;500,000 on offer for each of five years. The same amount will go to 70 Centres of Excellence (by 2006) to recruit and reward staff and to spread good teaching practice. The centres can be in any institution delivering HE, including colleges.
The colleges may well envy the high premium the Government puts on university teaching. They must be able to recruit and retain staff of the highest calibre, says the paper, and financial rewards should go to the best teaching staff.
"Their excellence should be celebrated and made visible, which will help students make choices and help drive cultural change in the value attached to good teaching in higher education," says the paper.
HE teachers will be expected to follow the FE example and gain a teaching qualification. Many of those who lecture had never been taught how to do so, and teaching in HE had to be treated seriously as a profession in its own right, the paper suggests.
Universities will be able to charge up to pound;3,000 a year for courses, so the White Paper stresses that the paying customer must be assured of the highest possible quality. No student - in any institution - should have to put up with poor teaching, it says, and quality in colleges must be as high as that expected in the universities.
Colleges and universities have different funding bodies, different quality assurance procedures and their own inspection arrangements. This situation creates unnecessary difficulties for collaboration, according to ministers.
Some traditional boundaries are no longer necessary or desirable as "mixed economy" institutions develop. The Government will review the administrative and legislative barriers to improve integration of the two systems.
It was important for universities to work closely with schools and colleges in disadvantaged areas and give students a "taster" of higher education to raise their aspirations.
There will be a new AimHigher campaign to promote this. Existing roadshows to promote HE had already reached 15,000 students in FE and sixth-form colleges.
The Association of Colleges said the high participation target and the Government's keenness to bring in more non-traditional learners strongly suggested local colleges were the best routes for expansion. They believed that HE students should contribute to the costs of their courses "just as most FE students do already".