Lecturers' leaders are threatening to oppose the government's flagship foundation degree project unless ministers can guarantee that it will not become a "bogus qualification to provide expansion on the cheap".
Lecturers' union Natfhe will discuss plans for the two-year degree with education secretary David Blunkett this month. Tom Wilson, head of Natfhe's universities department, said this week: "We will oppose the plans if we cannot get change."
The initiative is the key to the government's expansion targets. Natfhe has 65,000 members in new universities and colleges: almost all the foundation degrees are set to be delivered by institutions where Natfhe membership is strong.
Mr Wilson said: "We are not opposed to the foundation degree if it is genuinely about widening access and improving opportunities for under-represented groups, but we are opposed to bogus qualifications, which is what they could be if there is not enough academic content and they are not properly funded."
Natfhe is concerned about the tone of the consultation paper, Foundation Degrees: A consultation paper, published by the Department for Education and Employment. The DFEE said the degrees, to be awarded by universities, will be largely "vocational and technical". They are designed to meet a gap in the jobs market for "higher technician and associate professional level" employees. "We expect (employers) to be fully involved in the development of this new qualification," ministers say in the document.
Mr Wilson said: "The crucial thing about any degree is that it teaches people to be critical and reflective and that it is not employer-based. These look like the employers will dominate decisions about content."
Natfhe also objects to the proposed name. "What does 'foundation' mean?" Mr Wilson asked. "It could be construed or sold as being as good as a degree, which would be profoundly misleading." Natfhe prefers "associate degree".
But funding could be the real sticking point. The consultation paper said the foundation degrees, when first offered in autumn 2001, "would be funded in the same way as and at broadly the same level as other HE courses through the standard Higher Education Funding Council for England funding method".
Mr Wilson said: "If the argument for (the delivery of courses in colleges) is that further education is better able to deliver the degrees, that is fine. But I think it is because further education is cheaper," he said.
The government has formed a design group to make recommendations on the core features of the foundation degree and to help draft a prospectus to invite bids from consortia. Consultation ends later this month.