Further education colleges could apply for degree-awarding powers under new regulations being considered by the government.
The Quality Assurance Agency, which has drafted the proposed regulations now in the hands of education ministers, has deliberately left the door open for further education colleges to make a bid for running their own degree courses.
If accepted, the rules would for the first time allow colleges with a strong and well-established higher education track record to apply for taught degree-awarding powers.
Large so-called "mixed economy" colleges with a high proportion of higher education students, such as Bradford and Ilkely College, Suffolk College and Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies, could be the first to apply.
Derek Mortimer, principal of Suffolk College, said his institution would be interested. "We are of the right scale and academic mix for it to be a realistic possibility that we could consider seriously, although we would want to look at our position in the market," he said.
Newcastle College is one of the biggest FE colleges in the country with about a fifth of its students on higher education courses. Roger Lowans, its deputy chief executive, said: "We would be interested if we thought there was a gap in the market for local people."
A QAA spokesman said the new rules would subject institutions applying for the powers to closer, more rigorous scrutiny over a longer period than at present. Colleges would be able to apply only if they could demonstrate significant experience of delivering degree-level programmes.
The news emerged this week as David Blunkett, secretary of state for education and employment, told higher education college heads he was sticking to his decision to allow Warrington Collegiate Institute - a further education college - to seek a university college title. In a letter to the Standing Conference of Principals, Mr Blunkett said he wanted to be flexible about use of the title under the right circumstances.
SCOP heads, who had written to Mr Blunkett asking him to explain why he was giving Warrington more time to bid for the title while ordering some higher education colleges to stop using it, said they were still baffled.
Norman Taylor, SCOP chairman, said principals would be watching closely for the outcome of talks between Warrington and Manchester University on how links between the two institutions might support Warrington's case.
Professor Taylor said: "Once the negotiations are concluded they may provide an example of how to gain the title, which will be of interest to many higher education colleges."
Meanwhile, Liverpool Hope University College has announced it has applied to the High Court for a judicial review of government rules that require it to change its name because it does not have degree-awarding powers.
Tony Grayson, college secretary, said Liverpool Hope's lawyers had concluded the rules were "unlawful" because a moratorium imposed on applications for degree-awarding powers while the rules were reviewed prevented it from applying.