A groundbreaking higher and further education merger could create the United Kingdom's first "comprehensive" university.
The hope is that it may provide a model for collaboration and widening participation, feeding into the government's ongoing strategic review of higher education as part of its drive towards a 50 per cent participation rate.
The University of Bradford is drawing up plans to reinvent itself under a new name by merging with Bradford College. A merged institution would offer qualifications ranging from post-GCSE to postdoctoral.
Official merger talks began this week. Bradford University's vice-chancellor, Chris Taylor, said that, if successful, it could be the template for a hybrid post-16 institution, integrating further and higher education seamlessly.
Professor Taylor said: "What we envisage is a completely new type of modern civic university with tremendous breadth."
He said that the current political climate demanded a new vision cutting across old sectoral boundaries between further and higher education.
The government is pressing for closer collaboration between universities and colleges. Collaboration is seen as a way to widen participation among people from poorer backgrounds, whose initial steps on the ladder to higher education are often made in colleges.
Yet despite this push, ministers are happy to allow diversity within the sector with top universities continuing to focus much of their energies on research.
Professor Taylor said: "This comes at a time when the government is giving particular thought to the way post-compulsory education is delivered and to the benefits of a closer relationship between further and higher education.
"We are perfectly positioned to deliver a unique model of education with progression routes, which is a new vision for both higher and further education."
Professor Taylor began informal talks with neighbouring Bradford College on taking office in September.
He said the city of Bradford had suffered from a poor image for some time and that the riots that flared up over the summer had made recruitment more difficult this year.
"The Bradford factor is certainly a problem for us, and we know that some students won't even consider us because of the city's image. If this continues, it would become a very serious problem," he said.
The number of home undergraduates was significantly down on ambitious recruitment targets. The university's aim was to bring in more local students through the further education route. This year's intake was down 2 per cent on last year but fell almost 19 per cent short of internal targets.
A merged institution, which would have a new, as yet undecided name, would have a joint income of well over £100 million and about 20,000 students.
Alan Hodgson, principal of Bradford College, said both institutions were currently too small to tackle the progression problem. He added that the aim was to create a new model of institution not seen elsewhere in the UK.
He said: "This is really about meeting the government's 50 per cent participation challenge. The boundaries that currently separate further and higher education are not helpful and we want to operate as one institution on all levels. Then we will not be required by funding regimes to compete with each other."
He said the plans were not about cost-cutting since both institutions wanted to be able to grow. Raising educational aspirations and attainment and fostering social inclusion were key objectives, Dr Hodgson said. The new institution would aim to provide access to adult, further and higher education for local people.
Issues such as cultural differences, staffing structures and governance would also have to be tackled, he added.
Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, visited Bradford last week to discuss the plans. Both institutions will be seeking support from Hefce and from the Learning and Skills Council for a feasibility study to be undertaken in the first half of 2002.
Higher education minister Margaret Hodge said: "What we want to encourage is easier progression for individuals. We are going to do that with much stronger collaboration between schools, colleges and universities. I am very keen to look at anything that would support progression for individuals."
Ms Hodge said that the government was keen to improve vocational education routes from GNVQ to foundation-degree level. But the minister said that there were problems with people's perceptions of such qualifications as somehow less than academic equivalents. She said the government was trying to build parity of esteem.
She added that the government was working closely with employers in a bid to refine the content of vocational qualifications and ensure that they open job and continuing education opportunities.