University and college heads have welcomed news that the government is about to launch two-year "foundation degrees".
Department for Education and Employment officials plan to publish a consultation document on the proposed qualification later this month or early in February.
Prime minister Tony Blair announced last month that expansion of higher education would focus on vocationally oriented courses akin to United States associate degrees.
The consultation paper is expected to suggest foundation degree programmes are:
Awarded by higher education institutions with degree-awarding powers
Delivered flexibly - probably in modules
Targeted at 18 to 30-year-olds in work
Offer progression to a full degree with a 15-month top-up.
DFEE officials are keen to ensure that, although access requirements may be set as low as one A level or a level three GNVQ, the qualification carries national prestige and is not seen as "dumbing down".
They want to use it to sweep up the plethora of qualifications offered at sub-degree level, including Higher National Diplomas.
The consultation paper will propose that foundation degrees respond to employers' needs. Programmes should include "key skills", such as communication, teamwork and work experience. Accreditation of previous learning might be considered.
A development group is to be set up next month and institutions are to be invited to submit bids in July to run a few pilot courses from September next year, with a view to foundation degrees becoming part of mainstream provision from September 2003.
Further and higher eduction colleges are expected to become the main providers, grouped into consortia backed by universities.
A number of possible models have already been launched by further and higher education institutions, raising concerns that some might be forced to alter their existing programmes to fit the government's preferred design. Present models range from "home-grown" FE versions to a "fast-track" programme from Middlesex University leading to a 12-month full degree top-up.
But John Brennan, director of FE development for the Association of Colleges, said he thought most institutions would be happy to adopt whatever model emerged.
Patricia Ambrose, chief executive of the Standing Conference of Principals, said: "Higher education colleges will be well-placed to offer these new programmes."