By transferring 20,000 degree places from universities charging high fees to their cut-price rivals, business secretary Vince Cable made it clear that FE colleges had a major role to play in higher education (HE). Indeed, half of the places for 2012-13, allocated earlier this year, were eventually awarded to colleges.
Now the stakes have been raised even higher, with the delayed announcement that the number of places distributed through the so-called "core and margin" scheme is to be increased in 2013-14 by 5,000 for institutions "offering good quality and value for money".
"We are ... increasing the number of places on courses which offer value for money, backing those universities and colleges which have focused on keeping their costs to students down," Mr Cable said.
But while many college principals may have been pleased at the opportunity to expand their HE provision, some in the sector who had been hoping for a higher allocation were left disappointed.
"We're in favour of opening up the cost-effective margin; we are supportive of the direction of travel," said Nick Davy, HE policy manager for the Association of Colleges (AoC). "But we were hoping for something a bit better."
Given that the announcement was delayed owing to concerns from universities that complained they felt "destabilised" by the move, some caution on Mr Cable's part should perhaps have been expected.
Michael Driscoll, interim chairman of the Million+ group of post-1992 institutions and vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, had previously warned that any further expansion of low-cost provision would "limit student choice" at "tried and tested" universities.
But Gordon Marsden, shadow minister for FE, felt that the lack of "clarity and certainty" caused by the delays could actually deter colleges from getting on board. "There appears to be no clear progress where core and margin is going. (Ministers) are making it up as they go along, changing the quota figures. If we are going to encourage colleges to extend and expand their facilities and provision, they certainly need to know what's going to be on offer and have a great deal more certainty over a two- to three-year period."
Mr Davy also expressed reservations about the hesitancy in the government's approach. "It's a question of speed. We always realised there was opposition to it, and a feeling of, 'Let's see what happens with the 20,000 places first, before we move too fast.' But we would like to see a stable direction of travel so that colleges can plan over a three-year period."
In spite of the government's promise last year to increase the number of HE places in FE, the pace of expansion has been slower than some colleges would have hoped. Indeed, the fact that colleges and universities have to compete for extra allocations is only serving to increase tensions. Just over half of colleges offering degrees are funded indirectly, with a partner university passing their places - and funding - to them.
As TES reported in March ("Collaboration gives way to dog eat dog at the HE funding bowl", 16 March), 14 per cent of colleges have been told that their student numbers will be cut this year, while the partnerships with universities of up to 30 per cent of them could end completely by 2013. With more places now expected to be handed to colleges at the same time, relationships are likely to become even more strained.
170,000 - Number of students taking HE courses in FE colleges, amounting to
7.7% of the total number of students on HE courses.