The scrapping of tuition fees for foundation degrees is on the government's access and expansion agenda, higher education minister Margaret Hodge confirmed this week.
She also hinted that the higher national diploma and higher national certificate could be allowed to die out, subsumed by the much-criticised foundation degree, which would not be allowed to flop.
"The foundation degree is here to stay," she told a conference at the University of East London. "It has a vital contribution to make."
Ms Hodge rounded on "sceptics" who had criticised the foundation degree as an unappealing second-class qualification that would never get off the ground.
She said: "I'm convinced it will be an important qualification as we move forward because it is essential to meet our objective of getting 50 per cent of under-30s into higher education by 2010."
She said the goal "was not a politically correct target dreamed up in the bath by one of my predecessors", but a serious attempt to respond to the growth in jobs that required high levels of skill.
But just a month before the higher education white paper, she said she was still keen to listen to institutions delivering the qualification to help set its future role.
"How will we better market the new degree?" she asked. "Do we need to further fund the development of foundation degrees, to waive fees for students, or to lower fees?"
David Robertson, professor of public policy at Liverpool John Moores University, who is widely regarded as the architect of the foundation degree, said that reduced tuition fees were inevitable as the flipside of introducing top-up fees for the most popular degree courses at elite universities. "If we are to have differential fees, foundation degrees must be priced at zero, to form the baseline," he said.
Ms Hodge also said that the role of the HND and HNC - key rivals to the new foundation degree as the established intermediate level, sub-degree higher education qualification - were in question.
"Out of the 400,000 extra students we'll be taking by 2010, how many of them will come in through the route of the foundation degree?" she asked. "How does the foundation degree fit with HNDs and HNCs? Is there a way to bring them all together under a single umbrella? Is there a coherent system that can emerge?"
Professor Robertson said ministers had heeded his warnings that HNDs and HNCs should be sacrificed for the success of the foundation degree.
"There is no room in the intermediate qualifications market for two competing qualifications," he said. "The government has got to decide to back the foundation degree as the 21st-century model."
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