All higher national diplomas are to be converted into joint awards carrying the foundation degree title in sweeping reforms to be introduced by awarding body Edexcel. Universities will be invited to validate HNDs so that they can have a foundation degree kitemark.
The move follows negotiations between Edexcel and government officials who are keen to raise the profile of foundation degrees among employers and students. It will mean a leap in the number of students holding foundation degrees. At present, there are 7,500 on foundation degree courses compared with about 75,000 taking HNDs.
Edexcel says it could also mean the creation of a new breed of foundation degree with common national standards for a wide range of vocational subject areas.
But college heads have warned that creating a joint award runs the risk of losing some of the best features of both the foundation degree and the HND.
Paul Sokoloff, Edexcel's qualifications director, said the new joint qualification could be introduced within three years. It would not lose any of the characteristics of HNDs that have been so valued by employers since their introduction in the 1920s.
Universities and colleges that offer HNDs would be expected to retain them until the end of their validation period before converting to the joint award.
He said: "We want to retain the HND's very strong work-relatedness combined with underpinning knowledge and understanding. It will provide a continuity in employers' confidence, while allowing students to gain the kudos of the foundation degree title."
Edexcel is adamant that the reforms are more than just a rebadging exercise. Although many HNDs have been developed in line with Qualification and Curriculum Authority requirements, more work will be needed in most cases to also meet new Quality Assurance Agency subject benchmarks for foundation degrees.
Mr Sokoloff said that Edexcel would also need to negotiate with the QAA over subject areas not yet covered by the benchmarks. So far foundation degrees have been developed by individual universities working in partnership with further education colleges in subjects appealing mostly to a local or regional market. In contrast, many HNDs have been designed centrally and aimed at a national market in subjects not covered by foundation degrees.
Mr Sokoloff said the result of the process could mean more consistency in foundation degree content. "What we would be offering is a national standard in the foundation degree, particularly in terms of content," he said.
Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality for the Association of Colleges, said there was support for maintaining both HNDs and foundation degrees.
"The question is whether a joint qualification will meet all the needs of students and employers."
* Awarding body City and Guilds will launch a blueprint for a higher professional diploma next week. Designed in collaboration with Derby and Leeds Metropolitan universities, it will be offered in seven subject areas.