Colleges must play a far bigger part in the education and training of students from the age of 14, David Blunkett, Education and Employment Secretary, said this week.
The sector had proved its ability to help to reshape Britain's education and training more widely than is often understood by outsiders, he said. At the same time he sent a warning to the 79 training and enterprise councils to sharpen up their provision.
Mr Blunkett - who himself gained qualifications through FE - spelt out his vision for the first time since the general election in an interview with The TES this week.
He pledged a package of reforms to raise the status of adult education, to open up the Government's funding system to a wider range of education and training courses, to rescue the "lost generation" of the 1980s who ended up on one job scheme after another, and to bring new measures for mothers returning to learn.
The failure of colleges had not been in their achievements but in not tackling low morale and failing to sell themselves to the public, he said.
"The sector is not understood by the media for the contribution it can make, and is even less understood in general as being a part of that crucial delivery in terms of the political agenda." he insisted.
In the clearest indication yet of the particular role for colleges, he said: "I do not see FE and HE as seamless, because I do not believe they are purely one sector.
"What I do see is lifelong learning as a seamless robe where people move through adult, further and higher education, in and out as appropriate to their needs."
Better access for adults was essential. "FE has a key role to play and we will be re-examining the definitions of Schedule 2 FEFC funding [which says which courses can be paid for by the tax-payer] so that we can develop that much more positively to bring in more courses."
He expected a big step forward with the Dearing inquiry into higher education which was reaching its conclusion.
While he would not pre-empt its outcome, he pinned great hopes on calls for a new accreditation scheme, allowing people to move in and out of education when appropriate, and an expansion of HE in FE.
"It is about making education student-focused rather than institution-focused.
"That in itself will break down the barriers, but it will not erode the role and remit of further education - particularly in the delivery to young people and adults who want to see both vocational and academic merged into a coherent whole."
Colleges have found staunch supporters for their higher profile and a greater role for vocational education in the shape of the CBI. Mr Blunkett backed this vision when he spoke to leaders this week.
But in the interview with The TES editor Caroline St John-Brooks, he sounded a note of warning to TECs.
"They have a crucial role to play but there are very major areas for improvement, where best practice should become the norm rather than the exception. Kim Howells [minister for lifelong learning] is taking a long hard look at this as part of a review.
Mr Blunkett outlined his vision of a move from a culture of unemployment to "employability", on the European stage as well as the national agenda.
He said he would work through the European Social Affairs Council to have a new agenda for skills training for employability accepted.