The return of polytechnic-style colleges was proposed by the Conservatives this week, more than a decade after then-Education Secretary Ken Clarke abolished them under a Tory government.
On Thursday, Conservative leader Michael Howard said that a future Tory government would create a network of "super colleges" focused on vocational qualifications. The self-governing colleges would get £1 billion extra government investment towards buildings and facilities over five years.
It is understood that existing further education colleges would be encouraged to apply for the new status, but they would be allowed to continue giving "local higher education provision". There would be a smaller network of "national specialist colleges", concentrating on "one or two subject areas - such as agriculture". The private sector would also be able to set up colleges.
Tory policy papers say: "The Government's focus has been on higher education. Ignoring the fact that our participation rate in higher education is already... higher than in France, Germany, Japan and the US, the Government wants half of our young people to do degree courses.
"Yet the real challenge is not in the number of graduates we have. We lag well behind our competitors in vocational training and education."