Links between further education colleges and universities should be dictated by local needs and not imposed by a national formula, the largest group representing the colleges told the Dearing enquiry into higher education this week.
The Association of Colleges says there should be mandatory financial support for all students over 19, whichever sector they choose to study in. A new national framework of qualifications is needed to make clearer the routes of progression from one sector to another, it says in its evidence to the enquiry which ends its consultations today.
The 18-page AOC report reflects the nervousness among many in the sector who fear that Sir Ron Dearing's final recommendations will spell a takeover, with the FE colleges being marginalised. Many college heads say there should be a Dearing-style inquiry into the future of FE.
The association's submission stresses the vocational role of colleges and universities to be reflected in the new national framework of qualifications. The boundary between the two sectors should be redefined. But there should be no major changes in the present system in which colleges provide around 10 per cent of all higher education courses.
All courses below degree level should be labelled as further education and funded as such, says the AOC submission to Dearing.
The proposals for a major overhaul of the FE and HE sectors follows calls by university vice-chancellors for some tuition fees to be paid by students, which in turn was largely responsible for the launch of the inquiry into higher education by Sir Ron Dearing early this year. Sir Ron's report is due out next summer.
John Brennan, director of development at the AOC, said: "Further education colleges have a major role to play in the delivery of higher education and we think Dearing should recognise the contribution we can make.
"Encouraging partnerships between colleges and universities and recognising the need for more vocational emphasis and the need to support students will be beneficial in terms of helping the nation to get the skills base it requires.
"But we need an evolutionary policy which builds on colleges' and universities' existing strengths rather than forcing them into a straightjacket which would inhibit development."
The report says a variety of kinds of joint provision between colleges and universities would depend on the strengths of the institutions and local needs.
"The result would be a more diverse range of HE providers, specialising in areas of provision directly related to local demand and building on existing expertise.
"Such arrangements would avoid some of the difficulties which would arise if other providers, such as employer-based or commercial providers, were permitted to participate, in that well-developed mechanisms already exist for quality assurance, student counselling, guidance and other support, arrangements for student participation and governance."
It says all students should have access to a minimum level of state assistance, sufficient to finance maintenance costs during the period of study.
The minimum entitlement would be for three years' full-time education for all over the age of 19 and would be a mixture of grants and loans.