As schools and sixth-form colleges compete to attract and keep their A-level students, general further education colleges are having to find increasingly inventive ways to woo students between the ages of 16 and 19.
At Merton College, Surrey, the engineering department has established two unusual niche markets: courses in motorcycle engineering and musical instrument technology, supported by major manufacturers and available in few other colleges. Students studying motorcycle engineering can gain a higher national diploma or degree in the subject, provided by Merton College in conjunction with Kingston University.
The course in musical instrument technology, which trains its full-time students to be technicians for a range of instruments from string to brass and woodwind, may soon develop into a course in collaboration with a university, for which students can achieve a national diploma.
Peter Gadd, head of technology and engineering, says the advantages of providing such highly specialised courses include gaining a national, sometimes international, reputation; the enthusiasm of the staff and students; and the fact that job prospects coming out of niche courses in engineering tend to be better than average.
The downside is the reluctance of external awarding bodies to develop qualifications for a small market; the need to market much more widely than the local community; the difficulty of getting people to understand what the advertised courses actually are; and the high equipment start-up costs.
A different dynamic has driven University College Suffolk in Ipswich towards a greater expansion of its role in the region. The college is a "mixed economy" institution, providing further, higher and adult education, and runs its own full and part-time degree programmes awarded by the University of East Anglia. There is a vocational emphasis to the college's undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses and its A-level programmes currently involve approximately 200 full-time students. The majority of full-time further education students are between the ages of 16 and 19.
Eddie Gulc, head of the department of marketing and promotions, says the college plays a significant role in the development of regional higher education. "Around two-thirds of our students are from East Anglia and over half are from Suffolk. As well as degrees we offer quite a spread of higher national diplomas, and the opportunity for students to top up to a degree."
The college runs an HND in animal science and welfare with Otley College, and will offer a degree from 1999.
Another innovation is the Women's Institute Millennium Degree, launched last month. The programme will be based at local learning centres and women's institutes across the county, as part of a partnership between University College, Suffolk East and Suffolk West Women's Institute Federations. It will cover subjects including the role of voluntary organisations and critical analyses of the decorative arts and textiles.
Dave Muller, the college's vice-principal, says the initiative will "widen participation and take learning out into the community".
Stafford College also plays an extensive, if different role in its local area. A-level programmes form a large part of its provision, as do GNVQ and BTEC courses. It also has franchise partnerships for degree courses with Staffordshire and Wolverhampton universities.
Vice-principal Steve Willis says that the college's A-level provision "has declined every year for the past five years, as schools have become more sophisticated at holding on to their students". Students who now enrol on A-level programmes tend to have low grades or want to move on from school.
John Brennan, of the Association of Colleges, says opportunities often do not exist in a sixth form, many of which have under 150 students and average class sizes of 12 students.
But the distinction between vocational and academic education is becoming increasingly blurred, as is the distinction between further and higher education. Students opting for traditional academic qualifications in further education may find their choice restricted. Likewise, students wanting to learn a specific employment-related skill may find themselves encouraged into a narrow vocational degree course unrecognised outside a specific profession.