A controversial pitch for higher education to be delivered mainly through local colleges has been made by six of the leading further education institutions in Scotland.
Scotland's Polytechnic Colleges, the group representing Aberdeen, Telford in Edinburgh, Falkirk, Fife, Motherwell and James Watt, wants to challenge the traditional approach and believes universities should be left simply to assume a greater national role in research and development.
A discussion paper issued this week entitled FE 2000 states: "Further education colleges could be the hub of the network of local workplace learning centres as part of a University of Industry using the latest information technology for distance learning and assessment with local tutorial support. "
The polytechnic colleges, which aim to fill the gap left by the conversion of the former central institutions into universities, have always excited controversy. Some college board chairmen are suspected of not seeing eye to eye with what they regard as grandiose plans by their principals, while other colleges believe the polytechnics are encouraging academic drift at the expense of "vocational mission".
But Gerry Quigley, who chairs the board at James Watt College in Greenock, fully supports the drive to step into the shoes of the former polytechnics. "We have to be particularly aware of our market and what our market tells us is that they wish to achieve higher education qualifications through the vocational bridging route rather the more academic, elitist route," Mr Quigley says.
The bigger colleges have long chaffed at a Scottish Office funding formula that penalises colleges with the heaviest load of HE courses and a policy that has capped full-time degree courses. The paper freely admits that one of its objectives is "to prevent the total domination of the higher education system by the universities".
The polytechnics largely base their case on the fact that they can make higher education more accessible and cheaper. "The need to ensure lifelong learning becomes a reality relies in part on the provision of quality educational experiences within a local community.
"Increasing family commitments of child or elderly care and the costs in terms of time and finance necessary to travel to universities outwith a local community have been demonstrated as inhibitors to continuing education at more advanced levels."
The paper concludes pointedly: "An investigation of the diverse costs within universities for what appears to be the same product should be carried out."