Are they to flourish as a distinctive college sector - as this paper has argued - serving local communities, while providing industry and commerce with an essential flow of technically qualified recruits and returners? Or should they become part of a seamless further and higher education sector, in line with the academic aspirations of some college principals and the expansionist tendencies of some universities?
Now the Society of Education Officers has published a timely and cogently argued discussion paper by Professor Peter Scott from the Centre for Policy Studies in Education at the University of Leeds, and formerly editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement. Perhaps unexpectedly, although he does not go as far as some chief education officers would wish by recommending return of the colleges to local control, he does argue for a tertiary sector, rather than a single post-l6 higher education system on the American model.
Nor does he favour the more twin-track European-style 14-19 post-school system. Instead, he argues for the classic British compromise: a 16-19 system galvanising schools and colleges with the best of LEA and Further Education Funding Council practices, bringing under its wing much of the pre-degree level adult education and retraining (see page 27). A vast army of more than 5 million on whom, all political parties agree, the economic health of the nation depends. Surely now it deserves to exist in its own right, rather than as junior partner to either schools or universities?
For some chief education officers, the compromise will prove unpalatable - too far from the good old days of LEA control. But they should come to terms with where we are now, rather than where we were, as Labour leader Tony Blair and his education spokesman David Blunkett have both indicated in their future plans for LEAs. And were things always so good? Some colleges are struggling, with 58 close to bankruptcy, but many started their corporate life broke, with rotten buildings and the inheritance of years of under-funding.
Professor Scott's tertiary view chimes with that of David Blunkett, who has promised a Labour government would democratise colleges, urge coalitions with schools and link them locally and nationally with job-market needs.
Mr Blunkett could well argue that the Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard, speaking at the Carlton Club this week on future Conservative policy, has stolen Labour's clothes (page 10). She calls for tax breaks to encourage workplace learning and "training accounts" to which both employer and employee would contribute, an idea put forward by the Commission on Social Policy set up by the late Labour leader John Smith.
Mrs Shephard's priorities were for the 14-19 age group and its links to working life, and for lifetime learning - on which a consultation paper is due next month. Her vision appears to be more towards Europe than America, but there is little doubt that she too sees a crucial role for Scott's tertiary sector, rather than see it subsumed into a university-led system.
A single FHE sector may be a concept for well into the next century, but not for this, Professor Scott argues. Britain has so far chosen neither the US nor European path, and it may be too late for either. If the country is to catch up and compete, a Scott-style British compromise may be the right answer.