MINISTERS hope foundation degrees will be popular and accessible enough to bring 700,000 people into further and higher education by 2002 - the target the Government has set itself.
Higher education numbers have doubled over the past 10 years, but the number of people studying for intermediate level vocational qualifications has not kept up. Meanwhile, the number of people registering for Higher Nationals has been falling since the mid 90s.
It is hoped that foundation degrees will provide the winning formula of academic knowledge and applied skills that has confounded the British educational system for decades.
Similar qualifications are already part of the educational landscape in Sweden and the United States, which both countries have a better record in training highly-qualified technicians, our main area of skills shortage.
The consultation paper acknowledges that although the associate degree offered by American community colleges is on a lower level "it does provide a successful model with many good features".
These degrees account for 40 per cent of post-school education in the US in areas such as business, nursing and engineering. In Sweden, the Hyper Island school of new media design, which has a 95 per cent graduate employment rate, is cited as an example of "innovative" use of bringing together higher education and industry.
But colleges in this country could find they are the junior partners under proposals put forward by the Departent for Education and Employment. Their consultation paper envisages a number of consortia led by universities who would accredit and award the degrees and "would include employer representatives and FE colleges with a proven track record of providing good-quality courses".
Although in the short term the foundation degree, which will become available in autumn 2001, will add to the huge number of options in further education, over time it could pose a threat to established sub-degree courses like Higher National Diplomas and Certificates.
The paper says that the large numbers of sub-degree options "breed bewilderment" and adds: "We expect that foundation degrees will subsume many of the other qualifications and and bring greater coherence to the current jungle of qualifications at this level."
Professor Alan Smithers of the University of Liverpool predicted a bright future for foundation degrees, which he said were well named, as they combine the cachet of degree status with the implication of being something to be built on. They could prove popular in the IT industry which was short of people with intermediate level practical qualifications, he said.
"People are being taken on to honours degress who haven't proved themselves before reaching university. The principle of bringing in more flexibility and having an intermediate stepping-off point that carries a recognised award is a good one."
Full report in March edition of College Manager