The Conservatives are likely to stand against colleges' ambitions to gain more powers to award degrees if they win the next general election.
Colleges have set an ambitious target to gain approval for a new type of degree, with the proposed title of Bachelor of Vocational Studies, by 2012 to allow them to expand higher level vocational skills without partnering universities.
However, David Willetts, the Conservative shadow skills secretary, told FE Focus that the party had not supported even foundation degree awarding powers for colleges.
"The Government rushed out a decision that FE should have degree awarding powers without thinking it through," he said. "As a result, there was a stand-off between FE colleges and universities.
"We helped broker a sensible compromise. FE colleges can award foundation degrees provided they come within articulation agreements between colleges and universities that ensure the possibility of progression."
FE Focus understands that any extension of degree awarding powers to colleges would not get backing from a Conservative government.
David Collins, the Association of Colleges' president, who has promoted the BVS proposal, said the Tories had been putting out mixed messages, with John Hayes, the shadow skills minister, asking for more information about the plans.
"The Tories would be foolish to ignore the possibility of saving money and getting better value," Dr Collins said. "The more universities carry on teaching just five, six or seven hours a week on undergraduate courses, the stronger our case will be."
The proposed FE-based degree would have a more intensive teaching schedule, enabling it to be completed in two years, saving both the students and the Treasury money.
At the AoC's HE in FE conference this month, Mr Hayes told colleges, they had a big part to play in the Tories' plans for higher education.
He said that despite years of expansion, HE participation had risen by only 0.6 per cent since 2000, and among working-class students by 1 per cent since 1995. "We will not make progress towards socially mobile higher education until we recognise that rather than making people fit university life, we must enable more higher education to fit the circumstances of many more potential learners," he said.
He said FE colleges could offer different patterns of study, more part- time study to be combined with work, modular and distance learning, which would attract a different kind of student.
Mr Hayes blamed the complexity of funding arrangements for HE in FE for stifling the growth of provision. "I believe that FE colleges should be a key vector in broadening access to HE. To be so, they must be given the freedom to innovate and excel," he said.
But he cited Lord Dearing's recommendations in 1997 that a major part of HE expansion should be at sub-degree level.