Employers may back the introduction of two-year associate degrees amid claims that higher education churns out too many of the wrong sort of graduates.
The national council of the National Training Organisations has proposed shorter, strongly vocational degrees as part of a big employer consultation launched at the NTO conference this week.
The government is already considering associate degrees. Garry Hawkes, chairman of the national council, said: "The higher education system is producing people that are not required by industry. We always supported the old higher national diplomas. Calling them associate degrees makes it more attractive to potential students."
Strongly vocational associate degrees could help achieve Tony Blair's aim that half the population should have benefited from higher education by the time they are 30. Employer backing would sway government thinking.
The NTO national council's consultation document, Toward a New Investment Framework for Skills, asks employers for comments on ten non-statutory policy proposals and seven that would require legislation.
On associate degrees it says: "Even a mass further and higher education system is unlikely to deliver the culture shift required to make lifelong learning a reality. A move to two-year associate degrees and more unit-based qualifications offered by these institutions would free up considerably the restraints that exist in terms of training the adult workforce.
"Employers may be more likely to fund degree courses that are shorter and vocationally relevant," it added.
Among the document's other proposals are tax credits to encourage people to open individual learning accounts, income-contingent loans for the adult workforce and a national leaning and skills bank based on the Student Loans Company.
The NTO national council is consulting members, who cover 95 per cent of the workforce and represent about 5,000 major employers, in a bid to influence the content of forthcoming legislation that will set up a new post-16 learning and skills framework.
Framework proposals were outlined in the recent Learning to Succeed white paper.