Cut-price foundation degrees are being considered as the government struggles to salvage the key plank of its higher education expansion policy in the face of mounting criticism.
The government's foundation degree task force, chaired by Leeds Metropolitan University vice-chancellor Leslie Wagner, is due to meet tomorrow for the first time to consider ways of making foundation degrees more popular amid growing evidence that traditional three-year honours degrees are what young people want.
MPs will pile pressure on the government next week when the education select committee publishes a critical report on the higher education white paper. The white paper set out the government's plans for £3,000 top-up fees from 2006 and made it clear that almost all higher education expansion would come through foundation degrees.
The committee is expected to say that demand will be for full degrees rather than foundation courses, which will be seen as inferior or "runner-up" degrees. It predicts that a huge number of young people will be frustrated to hear that foundation degrees are their only option.
Committee chairman Barry Sheerman told The THES: "Ministers are in danger of killing foundation degrees stone dead before they have properly tried them. Rather than presenting them as something different and unique, as they are vocationally related, this will put a question mark over them."
The committee's conclusion is based on a report published this week by the Higher Education Policy Institute.
The report, Higher Education Supply and Demand to 2010, was previewed in The THES last month. It anticipates an explosion in demand for higher education over the next seven years as a result of a year-on-year growth in the number of 18-year-olds combined with ever-improving school exam performance. It estimates that an extra 250,000 places will be needed by 2010.
But the report predicts that most of these extra students will want to study traditional honours degrees - they may reject university altogether rather than settle for a foundation degree, it says. The report advises the government to lift the cap placed on full-time degree places up to 2006.
The report also says that it is not necessarily cheaper to offer foundation degrees than to offer honours degrees, so any plan to discount foundation degrees would run into financial problems.
Latest government figures show there are 12,400 foundation degree students in the system, about 2,500 of whom are due to graduate this summer.
Ministers are anxious to ensure that that these and subsequent graduates find their way into good jobs or progress on to an honours degree course.
Professor Wagner said the task force's agenda was designed to "step up a gear" in promoting and delivering foundation degrees.
He said: "The core of our work is about how to build a constituency and market for foundation degrees among employers, students and institutions. I believe they have the potential to produce a really radical change in higher education, but it will take time."
Professor Wagner said that the task force would deliver its report to the government in autumn. It will recommend ways of funding foundation degrees, including the possibility of lower fees and higher state funding. But Professor Wagner said that there was a danger that foundation degrees would be perceived as lower quality if they were cheaper.
The report will look at what needs to be done to get employers more involved in the design and delivery of foundation degrees. It will also assess the progress made in converting higher national diplomas into hybrid qualifications carrying the foundation degree title. In addition, the task force will report on Foundation Degree Forward, the proposed national validating body for foundation degrees.
Another issue for the task force is whether employers and big public service trainers such as the National Health Service University should be able to design and deliver their own foundation degrees.
The select committee report is also expected to defend the relationship between research and teaching, criticising the government's plans to concentrate research in a small number of universities.
• The government has dropped plans to introduce a successor to its ill-fated and costly individual learning account scheme. The "son of ILA" is not expected to feature as originally planned in the skills white paper, which is due to be published on Wednesday. It is likely to be quietly shelved for the foreseeable future, Whitehall sources say.