The government plans to make it easier for universities to collaborate with each other, with further education colleges and with industry as part of a reinvigorated widening participation policy to be set out in next month's strategy document.
Ministers are pushing reforms to funding rules that can block collaboration and merger between higher and further education institutions. They are also looking at staff contracts in the sectors, differences between which can be problematic, and at ways of strengthening university-industry links.
Higher education minister Margaret Hodge outlined government thinking at a conference on higher education cooperation and collaboration last week.
She said the focus was "to stop having institutional boundaries determining individuals' opportunities". "We are asking further and higher education to increasingly focus on specific missions... to try to work across the boundaries," she said.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England is updating the process by which mergers between higher education institutions and between higher and further education are considered.
Proposals, due to go to the Hefce board next Thursday, include working more closely with the Learning and Skills Council, which is responsible for further education funding and planning.
Closer working between universities and colleges is seen by ministers as key to raising the proportion of people from poorer backgrounds in higher education.
Colleges will be the main providers of vocational foundation degrees and other sub-degrees that the government believes will be a vehicle for widening participation.
Ms Hodge told delegates at last Thursday's conference that she favoured a two-plus-two model, where students spend two years doing a foundation degree followed by two years gaining an honours degree.
The minister also said that universities were, in general, still too distant from employers in their local and regional economies.
Ms Hodge commended Kingston University's links with KLM UK Engineering, to provide a foundation degree in aircraft engineering. She added that universities' links with regional development agencies should be strengthened.
David Melville, vice-chancellor of Kent University, told delegates how his university was working with Greenwich University, Mid-Kent College, Medway Unitary Authority and the South East England Development Agency to develop a joint campus and courses catering for further and higher education students.
Bill Samuel, chief executive of the East of England Development Agency, told delegates about frameworks for regional employment and skills action (Fresas), which are being set up in England to prioritise skills and employment policies.
Hodge hails Bradford merger
Senior Bradford University and Bradford College staff have had a number of meetings with higher education minister Margaret Hodge and with education department and funding council officials eager to use their impending merger as an example of best practice.
The institutions should merge in August 2004. By 2009, it is hoped that the institution will be teaching 50,000 students from basic skills to postgraduate level.
The idea is to eliminate what merger project leader at Bradford University Jeff Lucas called the "hurdle race" for students working their way from school, through further education to degree level. The aim is seamless progression.
Professor Lucas hopes that support in core skills, combined with pastoral and financial help, will encourage more young people into higher education in an area with poor overall educational attainment.
Professor Lucas, pro vice-chancellor (learning and teaching), said: "It is the student experience that is at the heart of this process and what we think will make Bradford distinctive in the marketplace."\
Alliance takes off
Strong links with industry have paid off for Kingston University with an international award announced this week for its foundation degree in aircraft engineering.
The award from the Institution of Transport Management in Europe is in recognition of the contribution made by the foundation degree, which was set up 18 months ago with KLM UK Engineering.
Andrew Self, Kingston's pro vice-chancellor, realised that the foundation degree, with its strong vocational bias, was the perfect educational vehicle to provide the training required by new, more stringent aircraft maintenance regulations.
But compliance with regulations demands more training than any university can provide - hence the importance of the partnership with KLM UK Engineering.
The university delivers about half the syllabus with KLM UK Engineering providing the rest, including experience of working on aircraft at its hangars in Norwich.
Professor Self said: "We have to give people degrees that prepare them for work."
The first students to graduate from Kingston with aircraft engineering foundation degrees next year will be fit to work in aircraft maintenance anywhere in the world. Graduates can complete another year at the university to gain an honours degree in aircraft engineering.
Kingston has also signed a £1.7 million deal in collaboration with the City of Bristol College, which runs a foundation degree in aircraft engineering, to run a training facility at Newcastle Airport. The cash came from the One North East regional development agency through the Learning and Skills Council with support from Newcastle Airport.