Colleges have set a target to establish their own system of vocational degrees that would see the effective "revival of polytechnics" by 2012. The ambitious timeline has been proposed by David Collins, the Association of Colleges president, as he set out the details of what could be known as bachelor of vocational studies degrees.
Ministers have been briefed on the proposals and if they win support, it would mean colleges cutting free of university control in their higher education provision, giving them more freedom to develop courses for local employers and set their own student numbers, Mr Collins said. Instead, they would have their degrees validated by an independent central body serving colleges, dubbed the National Skills University.
"We're seeing it as a revival of polytechnics," Mr Collins said. The central awarding body could be a new institution modelled on the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA), which validated polytechnic degrees, or it could be built on an existing body.
"The time scale is ambitious. But the issue is, if the Government wants a policy response in terms of doing more in high-level skills, there's no real point in waiting until 2014 or 2015. If there is the will to do it, it can be done quite quickly," Mr Collins said.
The degrees, which could also be called bachelor of occupational skills or bachelor of skills, are aimed at students wishing to take vocational skills to a higher level, studying locally full-time or part-time while they are working.
Colleges believe the two-year full-time course will be attractive to students who cannot afford the loss of income or debt involved in a university course, and they will appeal to the Government in helping to meet its aim of 50 per cent HE participation among those under 40.
A credit system for those studying part-time is intended to be developed so students could easily move between institutions during the course of their study.
Employers are expected to contribute to the design of qualifications and students would be required to complete an eight-week internship in addition to 15 hours of teaching a week.
Colleges expect the new qualifications to complement existing academic options, but they are anticipating objections from universities that already offer more vocationally-oriented degrees.
News comes as a survey reveals students are happier, in some ways, studying higher education in FE colleges. Analysis of the National Student Survey figures, published in this week's Times Higher Education magazine, shows that students are, on average, happier with the assessment and feedback they get from colleges.
Phil Willis, chairman of the select committee on innovation, universities and skills, criticised universities last month for their lack of response to the demand for improving high-level workplace skills. He said: "A lot of the innovative thinking around higher-order skills is coming from the FE sector now. The idea of restoring the equivalent of the CNAA to validate higher-level qualifications is something that I very much support."
He said he would want to ensure the new degrees were rigorous, and said that competition with foundation degrees could be confusing for students and employers just as the latter were gaining acceptance.
The proposals, which were developed by an AoC working group, are due to be discussed by its mixed economy group today.