Middlesex University and five FE colleges have virtually invented the foundation degree that David Blunkett is seeking. Their calling it an associate degree is neither here nor there. The first of its kind anywhere in the United Kingdom, it will be launched for 320 mature students and school-leavers this autumn.
The two-year degree played an influential role in shaping the Government's proposal, particularly as the thrust of the programmes are vocational, linked to the needs of small to medium enterprises locally and are readily convertible into honours degrees.
For Alan Rawel, acting director of the partnership linking the university and four of the partner colleges, the ideal is to satisfy not only local firms but industry in general.
Small companies, which find training costs prohibitive, want graduates who are mature generalists with the relevant core employment skills to start contributing immediately. "The Greater London economy is characterised by skills shortages at the higher technician or supervisory level in systems design and management, accounting and IT," he said. Mr Rawel sees a considerable similarity between the partnership's associate degree and the Government's proposed foundation degrees at a wider level. Both will take two years to complete, both can be topped up to become full degrees and both are overtly vocational.
Civil servants are talking to Middlesex about the associate degree, which is cited as a possible mode in the consultation document on foundation degrees.
Two hundred school leavers and 120 mature students will start on courses in communications technology, cultural industries, work-based learning, complementary health management, social sciences and humanities. Starting in college, they will spend more time at university as the course progresses.
For Barnet, one of the five FE colleges, the new degree will be the height of fashion - literally. The clothes industry will be one of the main specialist topics for their students. Barnet has some of the most successful fashion-related programmes in FE - a quarter of its15,000 students take art and design.
Each partner college will offer specialisms. Harlow degree majors include counselling, psychology and complementary therapies. The College of North East London has telematics, while Newham College in East Ham will offer computing, art and design and social science. Waltham Forest College courses include hospitality management.
Associate degree "graduates" are guaranteed 12 months at the university to convert to full honours. But there will be tight controls over which degrees students will be accepted on. "Pathways have to be mapped out to preserve the quality and integrity of the university's honours degrees," says Mr Rawel.
Rigorous checks will also be kept on lecturers' qualifications. Two-thirds of the FE staff involved have masters degrees and one in five has a doctorate.