IF FURTHER education still has an image problem, then higher education courses in FE colleges must be something of an ugly duckling.
But the ugly duckling is turning into a swan. In 1998-99, just 80 HE courses were funded, but the figure rises to 268 from this year.
Of the additional student places and funds announced recently by the council, 133 colleges in the FE sector won 16,616 new places below degree level (just over half of the total) and 521 at degree level or above.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England says the combination of these new places and meeting in-built growth means 47,151 extra HE places will be funded in colleges. This means government targets for full-time degree places have been exceeded by 47 per cent and for places below degree level by more than 100 per cent".
FE will continue to play an important role in the expansion of higher education and there are a growing number of colleges, such as Newcastle, Norwich and Farnborough with significant numbers of higher-level courses.
Colleges are even playing a role in shaping future HE courses, most notably in Cornwall. The county's four FE colleges are taking part in the Combined Universities in Cornwall project that aims to bring about a new university.
Penwith College in Penzance, Cornwall College in Redruth, St Austell College and Truro College are working with the universities of Exeter and Plymouth, the University College of St Mark and St John, Falmouth College of Arts and Camborne School of Mines, part of Exeter University.
Cornwall is one of the few English counties not to have a university and has long been campaigning to get one. Now that the European Union has awarded Cornwall Objective One status, marking it as one of Europe's most economically deprived regions, the Cornish are hopeful that some of the money will go towards setting up the university.
The push for a university has also been explored by a new report from Business in the Community, which highlights Cornwall's urgent need for an academic centre for excellence.
Professor Alan Livingston, principal of Falmouth College and leader of the university project, says that European Union funding is crucial because the institutions involved cannot afford to develop the idea themselves. Although the Objective One status has been won, the amount of money Cornwall will get is yet to be determined.
Professor Livingston says it should not be done on the cheap as a university is seen as a key factor in stimulating the economic and social redevelopment of Cornwall.
However, a HEFCE spokesperson said that although the council has encouraged the institutions to collaborate, there were no spare funds available and approval from both the Education Secretary and the Privy Council would be needed for a new university.
The results of a survey carried out by consultancy firm KPMG estimated that by 2010 there could be up to 10,000 students. The university would be based at Falmouth and Camborne, the sites of Cornwall's two main HE centres.
Professor Livingston says the next step will be devising academic and business plans, but this will require all institutions involved to reveal their plans for the next five to 10 years.
By creating strong connections between Higher National Diploma and Degree courses, it is hoped that there will be clear pathways from further to higher education. "We're hoping to offer a range of choices to people in Cornwall that they currently do not have," he says.
While the FE colleges will offer mainly HND courses in the first few years, Professor Livingston describes the project as ambitious and far-sighted:
"We are confident that down the line colleges will start, as and when they have the facilities and the staffing profile, to offer more and more degree programmes."
Expanding higher education provision in colleges - particularly sub-degree work - is a "very sensible development", according to John Brennan, director of development for the Association of Colleges. "It takes advantage of the capacity that is there and we see it as an important role for the FE sector to play."
He says colleges are very enthusiastic about this move and, although HE institutions are slightly uneasy, they did not have a monopoly on sub-degree work. "It wouldn't make sense to insist on it being delivered in only one sector, any more than we would want HE institutions to get out of HND work."
The number of FE colleges offering degree programmes is still small, but he sees potential for growth in this area as well.
Mr Brennan says that there is some merit in Professor Livingston's assertion that Cornwall's FE colleges would not offer HE courses until they are "ready", but says that different students have different needs. Workers with families, for instance, need local access.