Higher education admissions chief Tony Higgins this week hailed further education colleges as the new polytechnics.
Mr Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said that mergers between colleges and between colleges and universities were creating hybrid institutions straddling the higher and further education sectors.
He said: "We are, without realising it, recreating the polys all over again. The polys were created by mergers between colleges of art, technology and commerce.
"They had specific characteristics including a lot of part-time students, mature students and their subject base was geared to local economies."
The former Further Education Funding Council developed a merger policy prior to becoming the Learning and Skills Council. Many mergers have taken place over the past few years, notably in larger cities.
There has also been a dramatic increase in formal alliances between colleges and universities - a pattern the government is keen to see across the country.
Mr Higgins said that colleges would be crucial to realising the government's 50 per cent participation target in higher education.
Colleges produce large numbers of university-ready students and provide higher education courses such as foundation degrees.
A spokeswoman for the Association of Colleges welcomed the comments but warned against losing vocational further education.