Half of all colleges are expected to become centres of excellence in a vocational subject over the next five years, as part of a new scheme outlined by David Blunkett, secretary of state for education and employment.
As part of a new vision for the sector, unveiled at the Association of Colleges annual conference in Harrogate this week, colleges will be required to identify areas of vocational expertise they can develop in collaboration with other institutions, agencies, industry, schools and universities.
The government has pledged £100 million over three years to back the move, along with an extra £759 million over the next two years to help raise standards and skills and £150 million to boost college lecturers' pay. A further £170 million will go into staff development, to increase the proportion of lecturers and managers with professional qualifications.
Mr Blunkett said specialisation would sharpen colleges' focus on meeting the needs of business and society.
The target is for half of all colleges to become centres of excellence in a vocational subject by 2004-05. They would be helped to identify skill needs by new regional learning and skills councils, national training organisations, regional development agencies and employers. They could work in consortia with other colleges, universities, schools, the University for Industry's learn-direct service and private providers, to deliver training.
Mr Blunkett said: "I think this is the kind of challenge the sector is willing and prepared to take on."
In a statement this week, Mr Blunkett said the consortia arrangements that colleges with vocational specialisms develop "will prove particularly important in pooling expertise and resources of the further and higher education sectors".
"Those centres with the most effective collaboration - with employers, universities and learndirect - and the strongest credentials in teaching and learning, should aspire to become advanced technology centres working at the leading edge of innovation."
Colleges will be expected to demonstrate how they will maximise progression in their vocational specialism. They should offer teaching that extends up to level three at least, and "in many cases the spine will lead all the way to foundation degree level".
Mr Blunkett told The THES he thought it was logical that closer collaboration should mean colleges and universities would share teaching staff and facilities.
Universities will also have a key role to play in the reorganisation of tertiary education, brought about by new area-wide inspections. Following such inspections in Lambeth, Hackney and Islington, London is to get three new sixth-form colleges, each linked to a prestigious university that will have a part in its governance.
Mr Blunkett said: "The close links with universities are groundbreaking and offer a new model of partnership to colleges and higher education institutions around the country."
David Gibson, AoC chief executive, described Mr Blunkett's vision as "a challenge on a scale that we have not seen recently". Colleges working together and with other institutions to achieve it made sense, since it would not be viable for all to be centres of excellence, he added.
Lecturers' unions sounded a note of caution. The National Association of Teachersin Further Education is concerned that specialisation could create a two-tier system where some colleges were better funded than others.
- Problems with finance could hamper chances
Lecturers' union leaders at the college where education secretary David Blunkett once taught have expressed doubts over his new vision for the sector.
Up to 300 teaching and support jobs are under threat at Barnsley College, due to an £8 million deficit largely brought about by the government's sudden clampdown on franchising.
Representatives of Natfhe, the college lecturers' union, said another radical change in policy might be difficult for colleges like Barnsley.
Paul Heggie, Natfhe branch secretary at Barnsley, said managers have invited union chiefs to help identify possible savings, but have refused to disclose details of the college's budget.
Mr Heggie said he was worried that Barnsley's financial position might hamper its chances of becoming a centre of excellence.