Two-year vocationally oriented associate degrees are to be introduced in colleges and universities, the government confirmed this week.
The Department for Education and Employment ended months of speculation about the new qualifications, saying there would be an announcement early in the new year.
Few details are available but the qualifications are likely to be based on the United States model. This is credit based and allows successful students to progress to the second year of a bachelor's degree. The new qualifications will almost certainly be more than a repackaging of existing two-year higher national diplomas and certificates.
There is also speculation that the funding for associate degrees may be dependent on colleges and universities finding employment for their associate graduates. Education secretary David Blunkett told prime minister Tony Blair in a letter last December that he favoured associate degree proposals and was not opposed to exploring the tying of funding to employment success.
Middlesex University has already announced its own associate degree that is due to be launched in five partner further education colleges in September next year.
The university claims that its model may be used as the national template. Associate degree graduates from Middlesex could gain the letters AA, for associate of arts, or AS, associate of science, after their names.
Mr Blair said in the Romanes lecture at Oxford University last week that the bulk of future higher education expansion will be achieved through the new two-year associate degrees. The government has already said the bulk of the sub-degree higher education expansion - 100,000 more students by 2002 - will take place in further education colleges.
Mr Blair said one of the biggest challenges facing the UK was providing vocationally oriented higher education courses for people who had done well at school but for whom degrees were, perhaps temporarily, out of reach. He has said he wants half of all people to have benefited from higher education by age 30. The government has also set a target of 35 per cent of school-leavers in higher education by 2002.
Mr Blair said: "For the middle third, opportunities to progress to worthwhile, vocationally oriented HE courses are too restricted, which is why we are looking to a further expansion of higher education focusing, in particular, on new two-year courses, akin to US associate degrees, to meet high skill needs in particular vocational areas."
Any new HE qualification will have to be sufficiently robust to appeal to potential students and employers. The problem is that many young students see degrees as the "entry level" qualification to employment.
The new qualification may appeal more to older employees for whom a two-year qualification could be a stepping stone to a degree.
The Quality Assurance Agency says it has not been asked specifically to look at associate degrees. But a spokeswoman said the QAA was confident that associate degrees could be accommodated within the agency's proposed higher education qualifications frameworks.
One group of FE colleges, distinguished by the fact that the dozen or so member institutions have large numbers of HE students, is keen to bid for associate degree numbers.
Dave Muller, principal of Suffolk College, said: "I would expect the large mixed economy colleges to give very serious consideration to associate degrees. They would give status to vocational qualifications and I can foresee them being very attractive to mature students, particularly on a part-time basis."