A quality council with its own degree-awarding powers is one of the key proposals from the Liberal Democrat party's higher education working group.
The group unveiled its consultation paper at this week's annual conference in Glasgow, and aims to have a nationwide debate before drawing up revised higher education policies for its March conference.
Don Foster, the party's education spokesman, said that present party policy is for a unified framework for all age 14 to 19 qualifications, with pathways through a range of academic and vocational courses. He is now proposing that this be extended to all education and training qualifications.
This would mean a genuinely national credit accumulation and transfer scheme, he said, and students could register directly with the quality council if they wanted to take courses from a variety of institutions.
The council would check teaching quality within institutions, as well as promoting links between further and higher education qualifications, and helping improve cost effectiveness.
The consultation paper concedes that the cost of its proposals, which include expanding student numbers, replacing loans by comprehensive maintenance grants, and restoring students' entitlement to benefit, may require some form of student repayment.
While this met some opposition at the party conference, it was not conclusively rejected, even by student delegates. Ruth Berry, student development officer in the Liberal Democrats youth and student wing, said: "It's something we've always fought against in the past, but obviously we have to face reality and look at all the options. It's really important to see that there is a proper review with costings.
"I think the Liberal Democrats are ahead of the game in being prepared to ask the tough questions and do it openly," Mr Foster said. "There is a sea change in the party's view on this issue, and a greater willingness to accept the need to change. We are not interested in spending more money for its own sake, but for improving the quality of the system."
The working party suggests that student support should be standardised for full-time and part-time students, and further and higher education students. But Mr Foster argued that while no debate could ignore further education, it was essential to maintain the separate missions of the two sectors.