Sir Ron Dearing's committee is to recommend that a flexible qualifications system based on the Scottish higher education model be introduced nationwide, writes Tony Tysome.
The system would allow students to build up learning credits gained in further education, higher education or employment, towards qualifications set at five levels. While degree-awarding powers would remain with universities, the system would make it easier for students to reach degree level by accumulating credits for study in further education or at work.
The committee adopted the Scottish model because it offers the kind of flexibility needed to open up the system. It dropped the idea of a two-year further education "associate degree", which had been supported by the Further Education Funding Council for England.
It wanted to break away from rigid links between years of study and the award of qualifications, and associations between certain qualifications and full or part-time study.
The Scottish system, overseen by the Scottish Advisory Committee on Credit and Access, has four undergraduate levels and one postgraduate level. One credit is deemed equivalent to ten hours of study, and each of the undergraduate levels is made up of 120 credits.
At the first level, students can be awarded a Certificate of Higher Education, at the second, they can gain a Diploma of Higher Education, at the third, an Ordinary Degree, and at the fourth, an Honours Degree. An additional 180 credits are required to gain a masters degree.
The committee is also expected to suggest such a credit system might be linked to funding, an idea which has already been carried through in Wales.
Higher National Certificates sit alongside Higher Education Certificates in the system, while Higher National Diplomas are seen as broadly equivalent to Higher Education Diplomas. Students build up credits to these qualifications in further and higher education institutions.
A source said the scheme would be designed for maximum flexibility, although institutions would still have to ensure programmes of learning are coherent and properly organised.
"The perception is that while degree-awarding powers will rest with the universities, other bodies will play their part in helping students to build up their credits. There will then be a number of stop-off points, which will be a defined output in their own right," he said.