The term has also been used more specifically about lecturers by the Institute for Learning. Speaking at the IfL's annual conference in London recently, David James, professor of education at the University of the West of England, said lecturers should take the initiative in getting their jobs seen as a professional occupation.
Are the politicians and the IfL talking about the same kind of professionalism? In an occupation that employs many part-timers and staff drawn from a range of other occupational backgrounds, it is no wonder the idea of FE lecturers being professionals has rarely been taken seriously.
Only recently has the Government insisted that all teachers in post-compulsory education have a degree (or equivalent level 5) qualification and some form of teaching certificate. But from 2007, all new lecturers will have to have qualified teacher status and register with the IfL. So, whether lecturers are ready or not, professionalisation is on the way.
But who will define its qualities? Do we leave it to the IfL - an independent body - to represent lecturers? What track record do the unions have when they have failed to win pay parity with school teachers? If left to the Government to define, the word will end up needing a new dictionary definition.
Can lecturers define it? Over the years, they have been too burdened by policy shifts, projects and quality audit paper-chasing to discuss the precise nature of their profession. This has left lecturers reticent to define their professional status in their own terms. There is often a big difference between employees' assessment of their status in society and other, more objective, measurements. But even with indicators such as qualifications, length of training, adherence to ethical codes and so on, there are still no universal criteria.
Yet lecturers can too readily see in other occupations the marks of professionalism lacking in theirs . Many occupations which now have professional status had to make the case by acting in a more assertive way to win public recognition. Doctors, for example, were once regarded as quacks. It is easy to forget that the scientific authority of medical judgement was something doctors had to defend and promote. Unlike lecturers, doctors have the British Medical Association to support them and ensure their field is managed by well-qualified and trustworthy people.
Can't lecturers organise in this way, too?
Every university has an education department encouraging scientifically sound research. This research matters. It has been the catalyst for reform over the past century. The view that we have a right to professional status rests on a conviction that, for the life and health of our society, education matters as much as any other profession to the well-being of individuals - economically or physically.
This Government and its opposition probably do not share this conviction.
For them, society seems to progress in line with education for employment, whereby learning is governed by the needs of the market and its demand for particular labour.
As professional public-sector workers, no doubt we would be expected to share such realism. But what if, as professional lecturers, we believed that top-quality education, shaped by other priorities, would be more likely to equip a 21st-century workforce and ensure better quality of life than the restricted concept of skills and training envisioned by industry?
Ideas have consequences, and unless there is open agreement about what we are meant to be educating for, how can we define the status of those providing it?
Do we want the IfL to win real professional status for FE lecturers? They only can if it is something lecturers value - because their expertise is central to its definition.
Nigel Newton is a lecturer and educational researcher at New College, Swindon