Adult education leaders and new university chiefs have attacked a call by Sir Ron Dearing to restrict the growth of sub-degree courses to further education colleges.
They have warned that it could lead to a tier of "second class" institutions for higher education while taking vital resources from the best areas for HE expansion.
As the deadline for responses to Sir Ron's inquiry into the future of higher education passed this week, the Coalition of Modern Universities made a pitch to regain ground on Higher National Diplomas and Certificate courses.
Sir Ron had called for the cap on HNC and HND expansion to be lifted immediately, with a concentration of effort in the FE sector. The call was backed by the Association of Colleges, the Further Education Development Agency and other FE interest groups in their wider responses to his 1,700-page report.
But the CMU, which represents the majority of former polytechnics and higher education institutions, has attacked the idea. "The wholesale transfer of these courses to FE colleges would be a devastating blow to the new universities and would send the wrong signals on the importance of professional and vocational higher education," it says in its response.
Almost one in four enrolments to the new universities was on non-degree courses, it added. While it supports the growth of level 3 (A-level equivalent) studies in FE, it warns of the danger of drifting away from their purpose.
The irony will not be lost on the FE colleges wishing to expand into HE, since the polytechnics were themselves accused of academic drift and of attempting to emulate universities in the 1980s, a battle which the last government lost when most were granted university status.
The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education is also concerned about the proposals to restrict sub-degree expansion to FE.
NIACE says that the Dearing recommendations "point in the right direction but do not go either far enough or fast enough", and that "more radical solutions will be necessary if post-school education is to respond to the social and economic needs of the next 20 years".
The flaw is in handling FE and HE separately, they say. Within five years, "it will be essential to review higher education explicitly as part of a coherent post-school system, and not in isolation".
They argue that "clear and significant rewards" should go to those institutions which act most effectively to widen participation, whether FE or HE.
The institute, while welcoming plans to devote resources to widening participation and concentrating the cash in colleges with a good track record, is worried that these proposals "should not lead to a dilution of the quality of provision, nor to the creation of a tier of second-class institutions, dealing mainly with the mature and less mobile"