Sir Ron Dearing has pledged to examine further education's unique role in providing degree and diploma courses in his sweeping review of higher education.
Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard's announcement of the most wide-ranging HE review since Robbins - the 1963 report which triggered a wave of HE expansion - was greeted with nervousness by FE heads.
Principals fear FE will be reduced to playing second fiddle to universities or squeezed out of the degree market entirely.
Sir Ron will produce a blueprint for the character, scope and funding of the HE sector by the summer of 1997 to steer development for at least the next 20 years.
Ruth Gee, chief executive of the Association for Colleges, said: "I have written to Sir Ron saying not to forget what is distinctive about HE in FE. It is his chance to acknowledge the importance of colleges in providing for 10 per cent of all HE students."
A working party set up by the Higher Education Funding Council for England this week concluded (see page 23) that colleges have a distinctive role in giving access from students from non-traditional backgrounds. It recommends a new funding framework for more collaboration between FE and neighbouring HE institutions.
Sir Ron told The TES: "Part of my brief is to pay particular attention to HE in FE, and I want to see how the links with HE institutions can be developed.
"First we must make clear what HE is and what FE is. Someone doing a Higher National Certificate is doing HE but is likely to be in an FE college."
He added boundaries were blurring throughout education. "One of the issues raised in my 16 to 19 review was the number of people in schools taking Open University modules and other courses in agreement with universities."
He plans to take colleges' advice on the best way forward. "It is a distinctive sector from HE.
"There should not be great barriers between the various elements in education. There should be a distinction between sectors but there should not be a sharp edge between them," he added.