Headhunters are considering a shortlist of 13 top academics, civil servants and managers for the most powerful further education job in England.
Leading figures in FE, higher education and industry are being consulted over who should steer colleges into the next millennium as chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council.
Vice-chancellors of new universities dominate the list, leaked to The TES, of candidates for the job which falls vacant in July when Sir William Stubbs moves to the London Institute.
Names include David Forrester, head of FE and youth training at the Department for Education and Employment, Sir John Daniel, vice-chancellor of the Open University, Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College and Roger McClure, FEFC finance director.
Many see Sir William's departure as a lucky exit coming as colleges face an increasing squeeze with the end of three years of funded growth. The newcomer will need a very different financial grasp and must have the political skills to fight the sector's corner after the coming general election.
The list contains only three women. But they are all strong figures - Ruth Silver, Ann Wright, vice-chancellor of Sunderland University and Pat Morgan-Webb, principal of Clarendon College.
Chris Humphries, director of policy at the Training and Enterprise Council national council is the key contender from those representing industry. He had a strong local authority background before joining the TECs where he had a meteoric rise. He helped bring TECs and colleges closer together.
Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard is understood to favour a high-profile civil servant or a vice-chancellor who steered a former polytechnics to new university status.
Eight vice-chancellors are on the list. Professor David Watson (Brighton University and chair of the Higher Education Funding Council quality assessment committee), Peter Knight (University of Central England), Leslie Wagner (Leeds Metropolitan University), Clive Booth (Oxford Brookes), David Melville (Middlesex) and Roger Morgan (Plymouth and Trent).
David Watson would win broad support in the sector, where he is seen as having a real grasp of funding intricacies and a genuine concern for FE.
Leslie Wagner is less familiar in FE but popular in HE. His university is considering merging with an FE college and he recently predicted that a "more intimate" FE-HE relationship would soon become necessary as funding pressures increased. But, on Pounds 125,000 a year, he would have to take a pay cut for the Pounds 95,000 FE job.
Sir John Daniel at the Open University is a strong contender, with broad political support. He is a supporter of vocational qualifications as a route to HE for adults.
Sources close to the FEFC say David Forrester is not a popular choice. They want the list widened to include his boss Roger Dawe, the department's director general for FHE. Another internal FEFC candidate is said to be likely.
The list is light on FE candidates, suggesting the sector is not thought mature enough to have people with sufficient political clout. Ruth Silver, would be a popular choice, but is unlikely to win the race as she is thought to lack the right experience.
Roger McClure undoubtedly has the financial skills. But many in the sector suspect that he has less interest in students.