700,000 extra students by 2002 and 7,000 sub-degree awards
Plans for a new two-year foundation degree are designed to help the Government meet its pledge that within 10 years half the population will have been through higher education by the age of 30. Such degrees would transform the confusing range of higher qualifications, according to the Secretary of State, David Blunkett, launching the initiative in February.
The leaders of FE colleges that provide higher education programmes would sympathise with that. Students and employers are confused by the 7,000 sub-degree qualifications on offer. These range from Edexcel's Higher National Diplomas, through Certificates and Diplomas of Higher Education to an array of higher level craft and professional qualifications.
As the consultation paper says, the proliferation of awards "is such as to breed bewilderment". This leaves many of them under-valued and difficult to promote. Ministers expect many to be subsumed by foundation degrees.
But the "death", disappearance or re-badging of HNDs and HNCs does not please everyone. Some argue that these no longer provide the progression routes needed in higher education. Others have serious reservations about changes: they ask why universities should be solely responsible for degree validation.
More than two years ago, Mr Blunkett promised that a big expansion in sub-degree provision for FE, not universities. But the emphasis on universities in the foundation degree initiative looks to many like a U-turn.
Why was a foundation degree needed? Principals and senior managers believed they had already done enough by developing their own sub-degree courses aimed at widening participation. Much of the work had been done - such as innovative ways of raisin the attainment of slower learners - through the College Diploma.
Dick Evans, principal of Stockport College of FHE, says a new model based on joint validation by colleges and universities is needed. He cites the partnership between Suffolk College and the University of East Anglia.
"There is a real danger that the foundation degree, if validated by universities, will not recognise the many years of experience that colleges have in developing appropriate vocational courses and qualifications," he says.
Some very credible and highly valued awards such as NVQs at level 4 and 5 and City and Guilds craft and technician qualifications could be swept away by the new foundation degrees, he fears.
Mr Blunkett wants the new degrees to bring 700,000 additional people into further and higher education by 2002. Although HE numbers have doubled in the past decade, the number of people studying for intermediate (A-level equivalent) vocational qualifications is insufficient to meet the demands of employers. Surveys repeatedly reveal real skill shortages at higher technician and professional level. England also has comparatively low numbers holding intermediate vocational qualifications.
The new degree aims to attract people from a broader range of backgrounds: those the system has failed , young people seeking a more applied course or those who don't want to commit to a three-year honours degree course.
The consultation paper explicitly states that a significant proportion of any expansion of HE will be for foundation degree programmes - combining part-time work and study. The new qualification should offer a speedier progression for those taking sub-degree awards and wishing to go on to attain an honours degree.
Existing and new consortiums of higher education and further education colleges led by a university or higher education institution with degree-awarding powers will deliver the new qualifications locally.