THIS summer the Department for Education and Skills will launch a nationwide campaign promoting a radically new kind of university degree delivered largely on further education college campuses.
It is a startling departure. There will be nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world. It will be the first time in a generation that a new degree qualification has been introduced into the English university system.
The birth of the new two-year foundation degree - in the arts (FDA), sciences (FDSc) and engineering (FDEng) - this autumn is the fruit of a massive collaboration between scores of universities and more than 120 general FE colleges.
The degree has been created to help achieve Tony Blair's vision that one out of every two people under the age of 30 should have some experience of university-level education by the year 2010. At present some 30 per cent of the under 30s pass through higher education.
David Blunkett, the former Education Secretary, announced that the foundation degree was to be piloted by some 20 consortia of universities and colleges in his landmark speech at Greenwich University in February 2000.
Since then 21 consortia consisting of 30 universities, six HE institutions and 68 FE colleges have been funded to establish 40 foundation degrees.
A further 15 consortia consisting of 12 universities, three HE institutions and 52 FE colleges have also been funded to create another 30 foundation degree programmes using additional student number funds.
In addition, other consortia of universities and colleges up and down the country are also busily creating new foundation degrees without any developmental or additional student number money.
Margaret Lawson, the Association of Colleges' foundation degree officer, has conducted an informal survey which suggests there are another 92 foundation degrees being developed by other colleges.
For example, the Cheshire College Consortium of five colleges and Manchester Metropolitan University, created a foundation degree in business with the option of specialising either in finance or IT.
But how will these new degrees differ from traditional degree programmes? Foundation degrees will be two-year programmes leading to intermediate vocational qualifications designed to address the skills gap at the associate professional and higher technician level, for example, for legal executives or personnel officers.
A core feature of the new qualification is that employers and employer organisations such as the relevant national training organisations and professional bodies have been intimately involved in its design.
It is intended that these employment-related qualifications should provide the specialist technical knowledge, employability skills and broader understanding needed in the new knowledge-driven economy.
Foundation degrees aim to develop key technical and work skills, allowing students to apply those skills in the workplace. Individuals can progress at their own pace, using credit accumulation. Crucially, they let students progress to at least one three-year honours degree programme.
For the most part, foundation degrees will be delivered by FE colleges but they will all be validated by partner universities. In some cases universities will deliver all or parts of the qualification as well.
It is hoped the new degrees will widen participation by attracting many more people who do not currently enter HE.
The skills and specialisms represented by the new qualification range from aircraft engineering to e-business, chemical technology to new media design, and security and risk management to photography.
Professor Ivor Crewe, vice-chancellor of Essex University and chairman of the Foundation Degree Group, which is overseeing the birth of the new qualification, says that plans to launch the new qualification this autumn are progressing very well.
It would be wrong, he insists, to compare the foundation degree to a traditional three-year honours degree. It was a completely different vocationally-orientated animal.
"What a foundation degree is doing is trying to give more explicit recognition to the achievement of those who have done the equivalent of two full-time years of degree-level study, but study of a particular character, study that is very much more tied to employability.
"As the university system expands and the number of young people going into HE expands, then I think it's inevitable that there will be more students who want a degree where the emphasis is on vocational skills. But not exclusively - there will also be an element of a more traditional, academic kind.
"There are students who want to be doers rather than theorists, whose abilities really are of a practical nature rather than of an intellectual abstract character. Those students are more attracted to degrees where they can practise their practical abilities, certainly to begin with, and build up to a degree from that, rather than the other way round.
"It's the first time in a generation that a new form of degree has been introduced into the university system. Of course, campaigning and advertising will be needed to drive home the fact that this degree exists, that there are going to be more and more degrees of this kind in the university sector and that it differs from the honours degree. I have no doubt it will take a little bit of time for the news to spread as with any innovation."