An independent higher-level qualification for colleges with the same status as university degrees is being considered under plans to give further education a stronger identity.
The idea for a new flagship FE qualification is to be considered by ministers amid concerns that foundation degrees, while increasingly popular with students, are failing to make a big enough impression on employers.
Businesses are confused about foundation degrees, and research has found that they are seen by many as purely a route to university rather than as a valuable achievement in their own right.
While foundation degrees must be accredited by universities, the new qualification could stand on its own. It would mean thousands of students leaving college with a qualification which, while still counting towards a university degree, would be more distinctive than the foundation degree and easier to sell to employers.
The option of a new level 4 qualification for FE is among a number put forward by the Learning and Skills Council and the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Level 4 courses, which provide people with a qualification which falls between A-level and full degree standard, are seen as filling an important gap in many parts of the country.
The Government has already increased its investment in level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) and level 3 (A-level equivalent), and is committed to more people gaining higher-level qualifications - although the Government's much-reported "50 per cent target" for HE does not specifically refer to universities.
Last year, there were more than 45,000 foundation degree students in England, and this year the number is expected to reach 50,000. While the numbers have been encouraging, FE Focus has learned that Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister, is being lobbied about increasing concerns that the qualification isn't as effective as it should be.
Colleges are reporting that the number of foundation degree entrants is in danger of reaching its ceiling because it is difficult to involve employers.
A survey in the South-west, by the Association of Colleges, has found that the foundation degree's growth is limited by difficulty in engaging employers.
Ray Dowd, a former principal and the "Agenda for Change champion" for the Learning and Skills Council, said too few level 3 apprentices are going on to take foundation degrees.
He said: "The relationship between independent training providers, universities and employers, in making sure we have clear progression routes from level 3 to 4, isn't happening to the extent we would like."
"We can't have a foundation degree as a signature qualification for FE because it's in the domain of HE."
FOUNDATION DEGREES 2