That is the view of the Association of Colleges, which today launched a manifesto of the policies it would like to see enacted after the next general election.
The association said that FE colleges should be able to offer more vocational higher education qualifications and called for a technical accreditation council to be set up as a partnership between employers and colleges. Such a council could give the equivalent of degree-awarding status to further education institutions that have a strong track record of delivering higher level qualifications, it said.
They would then be allowed to award their own HNC and HND qualifications, in contrast to the current national system of squalifications at this level.
An element of the courses could be tailored to serve the skills and needs of the local economy, the association said. One possibility is that a group of colleges in an area could choose to offer a qualification collaboratively.
Richard Atkins, the organisation’s president, said colleges were “perfectly placed to take on the role of expanding higher technical vocational education”.
Speaking at the association’s annual conference in Birmingham, Mr Atkins said that colleges had the right teachers and facilities, but needed “the autonomy to make awards that are built via a two-way street with employers”.
“If we want the UK economy to succeed, higher technical and vocational education and more appropriate qualifications are key enablers,” Mr Atkins told delegates.
“At a time when we have growing skills shortages, we know that technical and vocational education should be a route that is open to all and not just those presumed to be lacking the capability to go to university.”
The manifesto says that there has been a “continuous gravitational pull” towards academic education over the past 50 years and that this has accelerated since the conversion of polytechnics to universities in 1993.
With a shortage of skilled engineers and technicians, it is “time we redressed the balance”, the document adds.
Addressing the conference, Mr Atkins added: “In this way we can recreate a local, technical and professional higher skills system with dual qualified teaching staff, a clear line of sight to the workplace and many more part-time HE students.
“This would be a realistic alternative to the traditional three-year residential academic degree programme for both students and employers and would restore a ‘lost route’ to university-level qualifications, such as HNCs and HNDs.”