More higher education is to be provided by further education colleges with greater independence from universities, the Government signalled this week.
A national review is to be conducted, which could result in more colleges receiving direct funding for higher education work. It might also lead to a fairer deal for them in franchise arrangements with university partners, according to a further education White Paper published on Monday.
New centres of higher education excellence focusing on widening participation and making students more employable will be created in colleges and treated as a "high priority" for funding allocations by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the paper says.
Ministers are also keen to see an expansion of lifelong learning networks that aim to provide local access to higher education across a region.
There are ten such networks, involving more than 40 universities and 100 colleges.
The White Paper, Raising Skills, Improving Life Chances , says that Hefce and the Learning and Skills Council will be expected to identify areas of the country where higher education provision is most sparse so new networks can be started in these regions by September 2008.
The initiatives will be given proper financial backing, the Government insisted.
Hefce and the LSC are to be asked to review financial arrangements and to look at the possibility of directly funding higher education facilities in colleges.
They will also be called on to review franchises that may have left some colleges out of pocket.
Hefce has been under pressure to undertake such a review since an investigation that it commissioned in 2003 found that colleges' university partners were creaming off up to half the money allocated for franchised courses.
The White Paper adds a word of warning on quality. It says that higher education provision should be axed in any college that is found not be delivering to the appropriate standard.
"Not all further education colleges are well placed to deliver higher education," it says.
College heads welcomed the White Paper. They said they were relieved that the Government had apparently not agreed with Sir Andrew Foster, who led a review of further education last year and concluded that colleges should "think very carefully" before becoming involved in delivering higher education.
Susan Hayday, higher education officer for the Association of Colleges, said: "This is a much stronger message of support for higher education in further education than we got in the Foster report. They should provide more stability for colleges delivering higher education."
John Widdowson, who chairs the Mixed Economy Group of colleges, which offer substantial higher education provision, said: "We are particularly interested in the idea of creating centres of excellence for higher education in further education, as we consider that Meg colleges will be able to make a significant contribution to that initiative."