The association of Colleges (AoC) this week called for a fresh approach to higher education, with direct funding for more courses run by further education providers, and loan and bursary schemes extended to part-time students.
According to a manifesto published this week by the AoC, further education institutions should have greater freedom to run modules and bite-sized chunks of HE funded directly by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce).
The manifesto says that the face of higher education has to change and that the country can no longer afford to focus the system on the needs of 18-year-olds studying away from home for traditional three-year degrees.
It also calls for colleges to be allowed to recruit students from age 14 onwards, a proposal that backed at last week's Conservative Party conference. The AoC says that this would demonstrate to young people the full range of vocational and academic routes available into higher education and employment.
"The national target that 40 per cent of the workforce should have higher- level skills qualifications is right but will not be met without a fresh approach," it says.
"In 2020, some 70 per cent of the population will be over statutory school age. Many may be receptive to the suggestion that they should upgrade their workplace skills, but will be approaching this from the standpoint of adults with family and financial commitments, which preclude full-time study."
The manifesto says the latest figures show that 170,000 people are studying for a higher education qualification in 270 colleges.
"Despite this critical mass and recognised level of expertise, colleges funded directly by Hefce are unable to offer funded modules, or bite-sized chunks of higher education," it says.
"Individuals often seek work-based higher-level skills but rarely want to purchase whole qualifications because of their family andor work commitments, which make it difficult for them to enrol on a full-time course.
"Therefore the next Government should ensure that Hefce funds more colleges directly and allows them to offer funded modules of higher education."
The manifesto goes on to say that a third of all higher education places in colleges are filled by adults studying for professional qualifications with fees usually paid in full by their employer.
"This important provision needs to be included in the definition of higher skills and in future policy debates about higher education," continues the manifesto.
A future government should encourage more employers to develop the higher level skills of their workforce without the need for public subsidy, it adds.
The manifesto also underlines the importance of college autonomy in delivering courses to meet local need. It says that a future government does not need to "determine the detail from Whitehall but rather delegate decision making to colleges".
College autonomy should be further enhanced by a single performance- assessment system for post-16 education and training.
The manifesto was launched at a principals' policy forum held in London this week. Speaking after the meeting Pat Bacon, AoC president, welcomed the launch so soon after the party political conferences.
"We were looking at two key strands in the meeting," she said. "One was what we were hearing from the political parties, and we presented our members with the main principals as we saw them. A key issue here was the 14-16 agenda and there was a lot of interest from members to look at how to turn this into an opportunity for the sector.
"The second strand was to try and second guess what the public funding settlements will be for further education for the next few years."
Ms Bacon said that the AoC was keen to measure the impact of FE economically and at a personal level for learners so that it could maximise its case for adequate public funding.
She also said that the association had been in discussion with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about how to better quantify further education's unique contribution to higher education.