Adult students who successfully complete new training courses aimed at the needs of industry and commerce will be guaranteed a place at university.
An agreement drawn up with the Higher Education Funding Council for England is aimed at attracting adults back into higher education with the help of their employers.
The initiative has come from new Lifelong Learning Networks, regionally-based consortia of universities, further education colleges, employers, and careers guidance organisations.
More than pound;47 million has so far been allocated to 15 regional networks. They involve 160 FE colleges and 78 universities and HE institutions.
The initial work of the LLNs is focusing on the health and care industry.
More sectors will come in gradually, starting with creative industries in 2007.
Agreements between colleges and universities will guarantee a university place to learners who have successfully completed the relevant qualification at a college.
Chris Baker, director of the Sussex Learning Network, said: "This is radically different from what exists at the moment. This is one of the big challenges. Universities are not used to guaranteeing places for vocational learners."
The networks were proposed by the Government in 2004 as a partnership between HEFCE and the Learning and Skills Council to boost the uptake of HE among adults.
Although most A-level students go on to HE, fewer than half of people with level 3 vocational qualifications do so. A-level students have the UCAS website, guide books, and school or college tutorial programmes to help them get to university. But ministers were concerned that there was no equivalent support for adults with vocational or work-based qualifications.
Networks were created "to make the whole higher education offer available to vocational learners across a lifetime of work and study," said HEFCE.
Chris Baker said: "We are trying to bring together supply and demand.
There's a growth in demand for higher-level skills. Employers see the needs of their industries, but it's also about identifiable groups of learners and those in work who would not normally progress into HE."
Using regional market intelligence, the networks will analyse the needs of the workforce, map existing provision and try to fill the gaps.
The social care industry, which has a workforce of more than one million, has a desperate need to improve skills and qualifications, particularly at management level. It is a diverse industry with one-third working in local authorities and two-thirds in private and voluntary-sector organisations.
The industry's sector skills council, Skills For Care, highlighted the problems in its recent report, Leadership and Management: a strategy for the social care workforce. It says: "First line and middle managers will be severely challenged by the demands of the modernising agenda." The report highlights insufficient management skills needed "to respond to the challenges of managing cross-service boundaries with health, education, housing, or of service standards and new inspection and regulation structures."
Only seven out of 10 care managers hold a relevant qualification. While this is partly because of structural difficulties within the industry, the report criticised the lack of flexible, relevant professional development.
The Greater Merseyside and West Lancashire LLN led by Edgehill University is launching a foundation degree in social care in co-operation with Southport, Halton and Liverpool community colleges. It is aimed at people working in institutions such as children's centres and nurseries. Students will continue in their jobs, spending two days a week at college in the first year and two days at Edgehill in the second.
Carmel, Birkenhead and St John Rigby colleges are to offer a Year Zero course to prepare people with experience in the health sector to move on to medical, dental and allied health professions courses at Liverpool University.
Gary Mallon, Greater Merseyside network's project manager, said: "Later on in life people have a different head on their shoulders with different wants and needs for learning. We want to be as flexible as possible." His network has working groups looking at progression and credit agreements, accreditation of prior experience and learning, and the possibilities of new courses, modular delivery, and e-learning. The Sussex Network will also provide the foundation degree in social care, and another in sport, based on local football clubs, courses in performance musicianship, and post-graduate design. Work is continuing on progression agreements that will guarantee a university place.
A spokesman for HEFCE said networks must eventually become financially self-sustaining. "Institutions that have previously had few mutual contacts or have even been in competition must trust each other to deliver their links in increasingly complex chains and grow new business," he said.
Each network is led by a university, but the Association of Colleges is confident HEIs will not dominate.
Susan Hayday, curriculum and HE manager for the AoC, said: "Colleges are almost linchpins because of their links with schools, employers and universities. HEFCE is very clear that it is only looking for bids that are true partnerships."