Further education could have its own higher education-style research council within the year, under plans being developed by the Learning and Skills Improvement Service.
The FE research and development centre would deliver strategic research programmes and fund projects proposed by individuals and institutions. Those undertaking the work may be called LSIS research fellows.
The centre's budget, although modest compared to the millions of pounds disbursed by HE funding councils, would help provide grants which, it is expected, would largely be used to cover the costs of research leave for staff. Unlike the HE research councils, the centre is unlikely to fund blue skies research, which has little practical benefit for FE staff or students.
Details of the proposal will be unveiled at the LSIS's first national research practitioner conference in London next week. If conference approves the plan, the FE sector will be consulted between March and May and invited to suggest areas of strategic research. If all goes well, the research centre could be up and running by the start of the next academic year.
Margaret Bennett, executive director of communications and research for the LSIS, said that while there was academic research into FE, it was not always of practical use. "The question we will ask will always be `What does this tell us?' The research we fund has always got to answer the `So what?' question. People have to understand it and think `I can do something with that right away'," she said.
Three broad categories for research are proposed. Strategic research programmes will seek to tackle major issues in FE. The costs of such projects - perhaps running to tens of thousands of pounds - are likely to be shared with partner organisations, including universities, the Government, the Learning and Skills Council and bodies such as the Institute for Learning.
Bids from within the sector will form a second category of research. This is more likely to involve FE staff submitting proposals and bids for funding. Costs are expected to run to a few thousand pounds, often the cost of providing cover for those granted research leave. Bids may be assessed by some research advisory group attached to the centre.
"We could be talking about six-month secondments," said Sheila Kearney, research manager for the LSIS. "While we are not sure about using HE terms, we might call them fellows of the LSIS research and development centre. This would be good for CVs."
The third category will involve the collation and dissemination of research that has already been done in the sector.
A research centre website would give information on strategic research programmes and grants.
The proposal is part of the LSIS's wider strategic directions consultation. Submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.