Lucy Ward finds awards bodies in competition, while Ian Nash reveals a hitch in monitoring quality Battle lines are being drawn for a qualifications price war as new organisations queue up to sell colleges their quality stamp.
Colleges are being wooed by organisations hoping to secure their cash in return for "kitemarking" their homegrown qualifications.
The accreditation bodies aim to take advantage of changes in funding rules which from September will stop colleges claiming cash for courses they devise and accredit.
To secure Further Education Funding Council cash, they will need external accreditation from bodies approved by the Department for Education and Employment.
Colleges are being offered deals including the sale of licences securing external recognition for courses meeting certain quality standards.
Though they deny competing with existing bodies such as the Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) or City Guilds, the new services could appeal to colleges struggling to pay higher fees of the established players.
The new bodies say their licensing system has educational benefits because colleges will be able to maintain courses they developed to meet local needs.
One of the most ambitious initiatives launched as the funding changes approach is ASET - the Accreditation Syndicate for Education Training. It has yet to declare all its backers, but two of the 12 large regional FE councils - for Yorkshire and eastern England - are leading the scheme.
The service, piloted for 18 months, works by licensing colleges whose quality assurance and academic management systems meet its quality standards, assessed in a visit by auditors. Colleges then send course documentation to ASET, and if approved the programme can be added to their portfolio of externally accredited courses.
ASET, which has been promoting its services through a series of roadshows, claims 15 colleges are in the process of registering, while many more are interested. ASET can guarantee colleges it licenses will be able to claim FEFC funding for suitable accredited courses because its parent organisations, YHAFE and ACER, already have DFEE recognition as accrediting bodies.
Another existing body moving into the licensing market is NCFE, an established North-east awarding body.
NCFE has piloted its scheme with seven centres around the country, Other smaller, less established organisations are understood to be competing. However, any that do not already have DFEE recognition could face problems gaining approval because of the department's rationalisation policy.
Officially, the new bodies are not in competition with each other or with existing awarding bodies. Professor Neville Woodhead, chief executive of ASET, insists awards accredited by his organisation "are not in opposition to national vocational qualifications". However, ASET wants to become a major national and international player, with plans to bring smaller awarding bodies, such as those offering specialist sports or professional qualifications, under its umbrella.
John Brennan, director of policy at the Association for College, warns: "Colleges will want these new bodies to pass a number of tests - do they have the experience and expertise, and can they offer a product with genuine validity which will stand up to professional scrutiny? If they can satisfy those tests and still offer a cost-effective service, then there may be some value in this."
The FEFC stays neutral on the issue. A spokeswoman said: "This is a matter of choice for colleges. The Council recognises any awarding body acceptable to the secretary of state."
The DFEE is planning a wider consultation this summer on the numbers of awarding bodies, following Sir Ron Dearing's recommendation that rationalisation was needed. A spokesman said: "We are looking at a number of issues including the function of external awarding bodies, their capability to meet the demand for qualifications on a national basis and their quality assurance systems."