Northern Ireland's regional education boards are likely to lose control of further education in the province. But the proposals for their future have not dispelled the uncertainty hanging over further education in Northern Ireland.
A two-month consultation has started on the plan, which promises the colleges the extra autonomy already enjoyed by those in the rest of the United Kingdom.
But there is no clear idea of funding arrangements for the 17 colleges, as no new administrative body is suggested.
"It seems to be a particularly Irish form of incorporation without independence," said Patrick Murphy, deputy director of the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education.
Under the proposals, the Department of Education for Northern Ireland would take responsibility "on a regional basis" for strategic planning and establishing a unified funding system.
The system would resemble Scotland, where colleges are funded directly by the Scottish Office Education Department, rather than England or Wales, which have further education funding councils.
The colleges would become corporate bodies taking ownership of their buildings from the five education and library boards. "The general view at the moment is one of uncertainty," said Dr Murphy. "The boards have served us well but the nature of further education is changing and the Department of Education here see the need for new structures. But it is still too early to judge how the system will work because we do not know what mechanisms the department will use for funding."
Michael Ancram, the Northern Ireland education minister, also has responsibility for political development, and the final arrangements for further education are likely to be studied for clues as to the future administration of the province itself. Mr Ancram said that recent college mergers, which reduced the number from 23 to 17, made it appropriate to give them greater management responsibility.
"The colleges have passed the stage where they are responding only to local demands," he said.
He added: "Each college will take ownership of and responsibility for its own premises and staff, and will be free-standing in its relationship with the Department of Education for Northern Ireland."
The proposals also include reducing the number of education and library boards from five to four, by merging the Belfast and South- eastern boards. The boards are each made up of 35 members, two-fifths local councillors and three-fifths Government appointees.
Lecturers' union Natfhe said the plan went against the popular view for retaining local administrative power, as revealed in earlier public consultations.
Regional official Jim McKeown said: "These proposals are about cutting jobs in education and reducing local control over the entire sector."
Ruth Gee, chief executive of the Association for Colleges, said: "This seems to be a logical step but we are presently consulting our members in Northern Ireland."