Universities could soon be home to two distinct "classes" of academic under moves to give further education planners more of a say in higher education.
The Times Higher has learnt that significant numbers of university lecturers could soon be subject to the rules and regulations of the Learning and Skills Council, the college funding quango frequently criticised for its overly bureaucratic systems.
A pioneering model of further and higher collaboration in Sussex, where the local LSC is beginning to take a hand in the strategic planning of vocational higher education, such as the delivery of foundation degrees, could be rolled out nationally.
An LSC source said ministers were interested in the idea of testing elements of the model in other regions, with a view to possibly extending it across England.
The news raises the prospect of higher education staff being divided into two groups, with traditional dons working in subject areas untouched by the LSC and vocational higher education lecturers subject to the full impact of the LSC's directives and targets.
John Bryan, who chairs the further education committee of lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "Trying to show you have hit LSC targets can become a paper chase with no apparent benefit. My advice to higher education would be: don't let the LSC in."
The LSC and the Higher Education Funding Council for England have begun consulting vice-chancellors and college principals on plans to establish regional lifelong learning networks of further and higher education institutions. The strategy is designed to make it easier for vocational students and those learning in the workplace to progress to higher education.
It is understood that the Sussex model may become part of the piloting process for these networks. A joint LSC/Hefce letter to all further and higher education heads says regional consultants are to "explore the scope for consensus" in developing pilots that will "test different approaches".
The Sussex model involves the LSC working with universities and other higher education institutions to develop courses, reduce overlaps in provision and meet employer and student needs in the region. Its champions are looking at developing a brokerage service between institutions and employers who want certain types of training, and an agency for overseas students seeking places in further or higher education.
David Smith, director of operations for Sussex LSC, said employer-related training was funded from three sources: cash for work-based learning, money from the LSC and from Hefce. All three should play a part in delivering the skills strategy, he said.
But Mr Smith said: "Because Hefce does not operate in the same way as the LSC, and does not have the same planning remit, its institutions are more autonomous."
He said the LSC would need to tread carefully to avoid being seen as a threat to autonomy.
Eddie McIntyre, principal of Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies, which moved from the further to the higher education sector last year, said: "I cannot see how it would work. If universities think bureaucracy is bad under Hefce, it is worse under the LSC."
Michael Thrower, principal of Northbrook College - a mixed economy college in Sussex - said greater collaboration between further and higher education made sense. But he added: "I am sure that the cost of bureaucracy in dealing with the LSC will be on the minds of vice-chancellors."
Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University and chairman of the Russell Group, said: "The word planning always makes me feel nervous."
THE OVERBURDENED ACADEMIC
* Research assessment exercise including filling in forms to help predict RAE outcomes
* Quality Assurance Agency audits, including compiling data for assessors and preparing self-evaluation documents for institutional audits
* Transparency review, including filling in diaries on the time spent on activities, particularly research.
* 73 separate funding streams each with its own rules and accountability requirements
* Self-assessment reports: form-filling and meetings to compile reports demonstrating courses are properly quality assured
* Short courses that are all internally examined and assessed
* Multiple Learning and Skills Council targets requiring paperwork and data returns
* Ofsted inspections generating reams of paperwork
* LSC area reviews that sometimes require radical changes in provision
* Regular student retention and achievement returns.