NORTHERN Ireland could pioneer the creation of a credit accumulation and transfer system for the entire tertiary system, according to Professor Peter Roebuck, pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster.
"We went for a single framework for all post-16 work, whereas the rest of the UK has separate higher education and further education frameworks," he told the inaugural conference of the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges in Newcastle, County Down.
Professor Roebuck, who chairs the broadly based group drawing up the new system, said it would not only describe the levels of qualifications, but would show them diagrammatically.
"There will not just be ladders, but we will be able to see where they begin and end,"he said.
"Our generic descriptors have been accepted lock, stock and barrel in Britain because they are the best."
A conference will be held in September to outline the main aspects of the scheme and to invite people to sign up to it.
An extensive programme of staff development, mapping the curriculum and preparing units of assessment would follow.
"As soon as people sign up to the broad outline it will begin to have an impact. It will act as a powerful integrator of the tertiary sector, but we have to be able to show that it works," Professor Roebuck said.
In a brief speech to the conference, Tony Worthington, the Northern Ireland education minister, hinted that he will accept the idea of handing over the 10 government training centres (GTCs) to the FE sector, along with their budget ofPounds 10 million, plus staff salaries.
As revealed in The TES in April, this was one of the options being considered to improve the performance of the GTCs, which are controlled by the Training and Employment Agency.
They are missing their targets for achieving qualifications, despite costing more than similar FE courses.
Other options are to set up the GTCs as private companies in the same way as Springvale Training, or to allow the colleges to become majority shareholders.
But Mr Worthington appeared to rule out these options when he said he had received a report that confirmed his unease about the existence of separate providers.
It noted that there was considerable overlap, over-provision and under-utilisation of capital resources.
The minister said he would be writing within a fortnight to interested parties setting out proposals.
If the training centres are to be handed over to FE, as now seems likely, the tricky issue will be the future of the civil servants who run them.
Nigel Smyth, Northern Ireland chief executive of the Confederation of British Industry, claimed that low skills, especially at level three, were a major cause of low productivity compared with more successful nations.
"There is a skills deficit and we have to fix it if we are to have economic success," he said.
"We have to fix the historic deficit at level three and we have to fix more basic problems with the core skills, literacy and numeracy."
Helen Milner, chief executive of the University for Industry pilot project in Sunderland, said they had already achieved 5,400 registrations thanks to commercial marketing methods and high-profile innovations such as learning centres in the local football stadium and the huge Metro shopping centre.
Although there has not yet been an evaluation, she claimed that the highest proportion of registrations was from the lowest socio-economic groups.
"People from areas that do not usually take part in education are coming forward," she said.
Ms Milner said that within nine months the pilot project had moved from being a provider-led service, in which colleges and others offered a menu of courses, to being user-led.
Colleges that initially were not involved in the project were now clamouring to join, she said.