PROPOSALS to let further education colleges become universities sparked a note of caution this week from a government adviser on post-16 teaching standards.
David Hunter, chief executive of the Further Education National Training Organisation, said: "We don't want the highest-qualified check-out operators in the world. We want people to develop the skills the economy actually needs."
Colleges have an increasing role in providing degrees, including new foundation degrees, in association with universities, and they should not be diverted from this partnership approach, he said.
The sector's role in filling skills gaps should not be jeopardised as the Government pushes to get 50 per cent of people through higher education, he told FE Focus.
Mr Hunter said colleges can go for university status "if they want to" but warned that this could give rise to a wave of "new polytechnics", with ministers proposing to remove the requirement for an institution to have research facilities to call itself a university and award degrees.
Applications for university status would be judged on the basis of a college's size as well as its breadth and depth of provision. Mr Hunter said: "The way to go is to develop the best of FE and work in partnership rather than go down the polytechnic road.
"We should be asking ourselves whether the country needs more graduates or, for instance, more skills at level 2."
Learning and Skills Council figures show that only Greece, Mexico and Turkey have lower participation in education than the UK among 17-year-olds, although a Briton is more likely to have a degree than a national of almost any other country.
Education Secretary Charles Clarke will press for closer co-operation between FE and HE, as well as work-based learning and adult and community education, when he speaks at a two-day conference on February 27 and 28.
The conference will discuss the creation of a post-16 skills council that would aim to develop an integrated framework of training standards across the sectors. It is backed by the Higher Education Staff Development Agency and the Association of Learning Providers which, together with Fento, hope to set up the new skills council within a few months.
The Confederation of British Industry says 47 of its members recently said they expected more of their recruits would be graduates in the next three years but warns against expanding HE at the expense of quality. It also sees improving the quality of FE and preparing students for relevant university courses as much more important than increasing graduate numbers.
Anne Lindsay, a senior policy adviser for the CBI, said: "There are more young people going into higher education, but employers still encounter a shortage of graduates with engineering and technical skills. We are not interested in the status of the institution, but whether it meets the skills requirements. There is demand for graduates, but there is a demand for sub-degree and A-level equivalent qualifications and we have to get the balance right."