Further education colleges are joining forces with awarding bodies to present a case to the government for a new overarching FE qualification that could be a staging post into higher education or employment.
A group of ten colleges has been keeping Downing Street up to date on the development of a "college diploma" modelled on the American associate degree.
The move is backed by the Further Education Development Agency, Edexcel, the Open College Network, and City and Guilds, and is running in parallel with similar proposals from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for a new post-16 umbrella award.
College chiefs believe the government may sweep up the development work into its own plans for an associate degree, revealed at the Labour Party conference in September.
FEDA wants the qualification to be piloted from next September, so that it can be introduced at the start of the 2001-02 academic year. Under the proposals, students could accumulate credit towards a diploma by gaining qualifications such as A levels or NVQs. Work experience, adult learning and "complementary studies", such as languages, would also count.
Andrew Morris, FEDA research manager, said the name for such a qualification was "up for grabs", and the title "associate degree" would be as appropriate as "college diploma".
"The point of the associate degree is that you can work towards it from a relatively low level, which can be highly motivating. We sense that the drift of government thinking is towards this, but it depends on credit accumulation and at the moment the government does not seem committed to having such a system," he said.
The proposals have grown out of an initiative spearheaded by Birmingham City College and involving nine other FE institutions and the Harold Washington College in Chicago. City College is already offering an associate degree programme validated by Harold Washington and the other "observer" colleges followed suit this year. Students study for a short period in the United States and gain dual accreditation, which can give them access to an American bachelor's degree programme.
Chris Webb, principal of City College, said: "The attraction of the American system is that there is clear articulation between the associate degree and the bachelor's degree."
Mike Austin, principal of Accrington and Rossendale College, which began offering the associate degree this year, said such a qualification could gain students direct entry into the second year of a degree course, saving them a year's tuition fees.