A new national register pulling together all post-16 qualifications is urgently needed, Chris Hughes, chief executive of the Further Education and Development Agency, said this week.
In his first speech since taking charge of the FE think-tank, Mr Hughes called for radical measures to give new forms of credit for units, modules and whole courses, bringing everything from vocational courses to A-levels under a single framework.
The Government's Green Paper, The Learning Age, and its response to Sir Ron Dearing's report both backed a credit-based qualifications system. The Kennedy report, published 18 months ago, recommended a credit framework for FE within five years.
Attempts to set up such a system have been sporadic or localised, but, Mr Hughes said, could form the basis for a national framework.
Speaking at a FEDA conference in London, Mr Hughes said the time was right to make progress towards such a framework and that credit and unitisation would be a "pragmatic way forward".
Such a system should not threaten the gold standard of A-levels, which would "retain their character and names", nor would it lead to a drop in standards, he said.
Work by Welsh colleges - which have established their own framework, Credis, with a database of 7,000 quality-assured units - could form the basis for a system. In principle, the idea has the support of a majority of colleges - 90 per cent of the 200 colleges surveyed by FEDA favoured the idea.
A pilot involving 11 colleges set up by the Further Education Funding Council to examine the funding implications of a unitised curriculum is to report next July.
David Melville, chief executive of the FEFC, said unitisation could have positive knock-on effects.
"Adults who return to learning are often inspired by the possibility of taking a small part or unit towards a full qualification for which achievement is recorded. Retention and achievement would also be improved as a result of a system of credit accumulation."
But Nick Tate, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, warned that despite "strong support" for unitisation and credit there was "a long way to go". However, the QCA's present requirement that qualifications were divided into units paved the way for further development.
The QCA would be advising ministers on the issue by next summer, he said,but they would have to resolve a number of competing agendas - between the needs of school-leavers and adults, standards and participation, qualifications and curriculum, central regulation and local diversity, recognition of achievement versus stimulus to motivation - before deciding on a practical model.
None of the existing systems could be adapted for a national scheme as they were small-scale, localised, did not extend to schools and operated in either FE or HE but rarely in both. An exception is the Derbyshire regional network - five colleges and a university which have developed its own credit framework.