Chief inspector Chris Woodhead has questioned the wisdom of expanding further and higher education and has called for degree courses to be made "more demanding".
The outspoken head of inspection agency Ofsted, which becomes the leading quality watchdog for post-16 education and training from April, warned that colleges and universities may erode standards in pursuit of more students.
In an interview with The THES, Mr Woodhead said there was a danger that the government's policy of encouraging growth in further and higher education could lead to more lenient entry requirements and a subsequent drop in the value of degrees and other qualifications.
Instead, further and higher education courses ought to be made tougher and entry criteria watched carefully so that qualifying students have a better chance of finding a job on leaving college or university, he argued.
Mr Woodhead reiterated his call for A-level standards to rise, in recognition of the fact that pupils are now "better equipped" to deal with tougher exams. But he said the same principle should be applied throughout the system, up to university level.
He said: "Degree courses ought to be more demanding, and what a degree represents ought to be more impressive. I do not see how anyone can take a different view. Just as we are trying to improve everything else, should we not be trying to improve the product of what we do as a result of attending school, college, or university? It then becomes a question of what percentage of the population can achieve qualifications at these levels."
Ofsted will be careful to monitor FE standards as the sector expands, applying the same principles of making "accurate, honest, and impartial" judgements as it does in schools, Mr Woodhead said.
"I will be interested to see what the expansion involves when we gather evidence. What I hope is that more people will enrol because they are capable of dealing with the demands of the course so that the qualifications they receive actually mean something.
"My argument is that qualifications ought to be ever more demanding as the years go by. If the reality is that institutions are accepting people who are not up to the demands of the course, then we will have a serious problem," he said.
The government should look hard at the arguments for a knowledge society and consider the danger of "educating people to a position where they are going to be disappointed", he added.
"Are we really going to need 40 to 50 per cent of the population educated to graduate level? If this is the case, the government has to be clear that the jobs are there and that they really do need degree qualifications," he said.
Mr Woodhead said he was happy with the prospect of FE colleges taking on more higher education and offering foundation degree courses, as long as the appropriate quality criteria were being met. But he said he was worried that "mixed economy" colleges bidding to become the new polytechnics would replace traditional vocational courses with academic ones.
"For reasons I do not understand, we seem to want to make every course more academic... Expansion must not mean that more traditional areas are downsized," he said.
Ofsted has already gained a fearsome reputation in schools, and FE heads worry that its hard-hitting approach could prove disruptive. The Association of Colleges has expressed concern that Ofsted seems more interested in focusing on standards of teaching than on cross-college provision.
Mr Woodhead said: "We have said from day one that at the heart of our inspections is monitoring what is actually happening when students are with lecturers. Principals seem to agree that this is a useful shift."
Whatever the approach to inspections, a direct link between quality judgements and funding would be a welcome move to reward the best as well as helping "failing" institutions, he added.
Mr Woodhead said he was "attracted" to the system adopted by the Teacher Training Agency, where quality assessments are used to rank institutions and place them in funding categories. But he said there also needed to be room for "human judgement" to play a part in funding decisions.
"The virtue of the TTA's approach is that everything is clear and no one can complain. I am attracted to that, but I would not want a mechanistic approach. There has to be a place for human judgement," he said.
The move into post-16 inspections will place Ofsted in territory that overlaps with that policed by higher education's Quality Assurance Agency. Mr Woodhead said the demarcation lines were still to be drawn. He has too much on his plate to consider claiming a move onto higher education turf, but he added: "If there is some contribution the government thinks we can make, we would be interested in talking further."
Soapbox, page 18