Further education colleges are proposing to deliver new "Bachelor of Vocational Studies" degrees awarded through a National Skills University.
A discussion paper by David Collins - president of the Association of Colleges (AoC) and principal of South Cheshire College - said the degrees would help the Government expand higher education "at a lower cost than presently envisaged".
His report says that under Lord Leitch's proposals for increasing workplace skills, some 40 per cent of the working population should be qualified to higher education level (level four) by 2020. This would mean increasing the numbers with such qualifications from 10 million to 14 million by 2020. "Achieving this sort of expansion through full-time three-year degrees will be excessively expensive and will reinforce social divisions," the report says.
Under the proposals, which the AoC plans to present to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the degrees would be awarded on the basis of two years' study at level three, equivalent to A levels, followed by two years in higher education.
To oversee quality, it is proposed that each participating college would operate under the umbrella of a National Skills University (NSU), the paper says.
The NSU would undertake functions similar to those carried out by the former Council of National Academic Awards, which awarded degrees for courses provided by the polytechnics before they were given university status in 1992.
"The NSU would support two-plus-two degree programmes based in accredited colleges, possibly supported by a leading university," the paper says.
Students would enrol at age 16 for a two-year level-three vocational programme that would be followed by a two-year degree "top-up", with the student graduating at the age of 20.
People who currently hold level-three vocational diplomas and who are undertaking apprenticeships would also be able to supplement these with higher education top-ups.
The degrees would be restricted to vocational programmes and have a strong skills base, with employer input into curriculums and work experience placements where necessary.
"A significant advantage would be that more degrees would be available locally, and there would be less need for students of any age to incur additional accommodation/living-away-from-home expenses,"the paper concludes.
Dr Collins said that existing partnerships between universities and colleges should not be affected. He added that the courses would be "supplementary" to current higher education, not "displacement activity".
Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and head of the Million+ think-tank representing former polytechnics, said that the power to award degrees required approval from the Privy Council. "If the colleges meet those stringent requirements, we would welcome their contribution," he said. "But I'm not sure we could produce graduates for less money than we do at the moment. We already have one of the most efficient systems in the world."
Honours-level qualifications, as defined by the National Qualifications Framework, would be difficult to achieve without staff "who are steeped in scholarship", Professor Ebdon added. "The real challenge for the further education environment in terms of teaching degrees is research and scholarship."
Deian Hopkin, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University and chair of the Universities UK Skills Task Group, said: "Any initiative to improve the skills of the UK population must be taken seriously, especially at a time of economic downturn, and this is a useful trigger for debate.
"One immediate question, however, is how a degree confined to 'vocational' programmes fits with the emerging 14-19 qualifications that explicitly blend academic and vocational approaches? What, moreover, would a generic degree add to the increasing range of foundation and top-up degrees that are already being offered through further education colleges and that are designed to provide both work experience and employer involvement as well as local delivery?"
Rob Wilson, Conservative Shadow Higher Education Minister, said the AoC paper was "interesting".
"To expand higher education further and truly broaden access, higher education must be delivered at a place, time and pace that meets people's needs. Our view is that different lifestyles require different learning experiences such as part-time courses, community-based, modular and distance learning."
WHAT IS PROPOSED
- Colleges would expand higher education offerings;
- Degree-level study would be completed in two years rather than three, after a relevant two-year level-three qualification;
- Employers would help design the programmes and would provide relevant work experience;
- Students would be able to study locally, incurring less debt;
- Part-time routes would enable people on apprenticeships to benefit from the scheme;
- Participation targets could be reached at a lower cost than presently envisaged.