Government plans to allow further education colleges to award foundation degrees could lead to the creation of a new batch of universities, it was predicted this week.
Proposals for legislation that will allow colleges to apply for the power to award two-year foundation degrees without needing a partnership with a university as the awarding body are contained in the Further Education Bill, which was published this week.
Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, told The Times Higher that the Bill was designed to make it easier to develop and deliver vocational foundation degrees that meet employers' needs.
He said: "At present, colleges rely on higher education institutions to award foundation degrees, which sometimes adds significantly to the time it can take to launch a course. We do not expect all colleges to take up these powers, but we hope this will ensure that more can respond to employers' demands."
Patricia Ambrose, chief executive of Guild HE, which represents colleges of higher education, predicted that the change would have far-reaching consequences for the shape of UK higher education. Those colleges that were successful in gaining foundation degree-awarding powers, after inspection by the Quality Assurance Agency, would have built up enough expertise to apply for full degree-awarding powers, she said.
"I do not see why they should not then go for powers at a higher level, and I expect some of them will eventually become higher education institutions if the balance of their provision continues to shift," Ms Ambrose said.
John Widdowson, the chair of the Mixed Economy Group of colleges that offer both further and higher education courses, said he expected a "handful" of colleges would apply.
"There may be a lot of people in universities who will be concerned about this. But we see it as a way for us to help widen participation further and respond to employers needs," he said.
Ian Tunbridge, dean of the University of Plymouth Colleges further and higher education partnership and an executive member of the Association for Collaborative Provision, said he thought that most partnerships between colleges and universities would be unaffected by the changes.
"I do not think there is likely to be any wholesale move away from well-founded collaborative arrangements because of the level of support provided by universities to colleges," he said.