Associate degrees offer dual accreditation
Run in conjunction with the City Colleges of Chicago in the US, the pilot degrees are intended to provide a new route into higher education for people who missed out on qualifications when they were younger.
After two years studying for an associate degree at their local further education college, students could move on to the final two years of a bachelor's degree at university.
The three colleges - Handsworth, East Birmingham and Clarendon - have outline approval from two English universities (the University of Central England and Nottingham Trent) for associate degree students to join the second year of established degrees.
This two-plus-two model of study (two years at a home college and two years at a university) is a well-tried route in America and is being considered by the committee under Sir Ron Dearing which is looking at the structure and funding of higher education in the UK.
The idea is to create a new degree that would be easily understood by all. A common criticism of further education is that it is a complicated patchwork of academic, vocational and adult education that no one outside the system understands.
"People at private schools understand what Oxbridge is about, and demand is high," says Chris Webb, principal of Handsworth College in Birmingham. But people don't understand what we're doing in further education. Only when it all rolls up into an associate degree - which has credit value and can lead on to other qualifications - will our work have credibility."
All three colleges are planning for a pilot intake this autumn of 200 students in six subjects: accounting, arts (including social sciences, law, journalism and music) business, child development and pre-school education, engineering sciences and applied sciences.
Science students will study arts subjects and arts students the sciences - as happens in America. All will study core skills in information technology, maths and English. The aim is to produce graduates who are well educated and highly skilled to meet the needs of employers.
The students, who will be funded by training and enterprise councils and apprenticeship schemes, will do UK qualifications in parallel with their associate degrees. Some will do higher national certificates, others general national vocational qualifications.
The programme will offer the first dual accreditation of UK vocational qualifications with international degrees, say organisers.
They hope it will encourage globalisation of qualifications and produce a more cost-effective alternative to traditional university-based education. Associate students will have a choice of up to 25 American universities to apply to, with five in Illinois and the rest in adjacent states saying they will accept all successful associate students who apply.