A group of further education colleges is seeking government backing to create what amounts to a new polytechnic sector.
More than a dozen colleges, each of which receives a substantial part of its income from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, have called for a new tier of institution in post-16 education. A document has been passed to education secretary David Blunkett outlining the proposals. It is seven years since the polytechnics became universities.
The colleges, which have been meeting for months as a grouping within the further education sector, also have agreement in principle from the Open University to validate qualifications and assure quality for all in the group.
Their aim is to differentiate themselves from the rest of the further education sector and universities. By virtue of their combination of further education and high levels of higher education provision, at both degree and sub- degree level, the colleges are already highly distinctive.
But the fact that the government has identified a need to expand intermediate sub-degree level education, including the possible introduction of two-year associate degrees, is encouraging them to organise themselves more formally. Many would like to "corner the market" in associate degrees.
They also hope that by positioning themselves at the centre of this drive, they will open avenues for expansion that were limited when the government changed the rules for achieving university college status. While colleges in the group do not necessarily want to change their titles to university or polytechnic, they are seeking a way around the log-jam.
Dave Muller, principal of Suffolk College - formerly University College Suffolk - said: "If we could reinvent the polytechnics as large, mixed-sector colleges, I would be in line like a shot. We are really aiming to do what the polytechnics were doing before they drifted into higher education. We have a brand and a market lead that other further education colleges do not have."
Terry Ashurst, the principal of Doncaster College, said: "We are trying to identify a new role. Maybe we are reinventing the polytechnics or, before them, the colleges of advanced technology. But any attempt to pigeonhole
us is really counter-productive."
Despite the OU's willingness to become the validating institution, differences exist between members of the group. They already have at least one collaborative arrangement each with a local university to validate the degrees they offer. Some colleges would not want to cut these ties to enter a consortium with the OU.
Others, such as Croydon College, are already actively seeking university college status. Croydon and Kingston University have embarked on a feasibility study with a view to the university making an application to the privy council for university college status for Croydon.
Kingston's pro vice-chancellor, Tony Mercer, said: "The expectation is that we would be looking at taking Croydon's (student) numbers in a joint venture into something more viable, such as a university college. The expectation is that we would become the sole validating institution."
Tim Brown, assistant director of the OU's validation services, said: "OU validation services has been approached to provide validation for the work of the mixed economy group if the work proceeds, but there has been no decision yet."