Tom Kelly, chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges, took a dim view this week of proposals to do away with summative assessment of the units which go to make up the Higher Still courses, now known as National Qualifications (NQs).
Colleges fear this could spell the end of attempts to win "parity of esteem" between vocational and academic courses.
"We are happy to go along with efforts to improve the NQ framework, such as tackling over-assessment, but we are in no way committed to changes in the NQ framework," Mr Kelly said. "That is a vital distinction for us. I don't see how you can do away with the formal assessment of units and still have the same framework."
He said changes could not be introduced willy-nilly for next year's exam diet because teaching towards certification had already begun. "Rushing into changes because of pressure from one group is not the way to do it," Mr Kelly said, "and at the very least there must be a risk assessment to ensure there is no detriment to FE students where people stick to the existing arrangements."
The association, which has its annual conference in Glasgow today (Friday), is concerned that there could be three different certificates next year - SCE, new NQs and variant new NQs. "The credibility of national certification, already under strain because of the exams crisis, could be further eroded," Mr Kelly said.
Iain Ovens, principal of Dundee Collee, who sits on the National Qualifications steering group which recommended a streamlined system at its meeting last week, said that there was widespread concern that FE could be seriously disadvantaged. The units were the "building blocks" of the NQ framework.
"I am concerned that if we abandon internal assessment and external assessment as equal and valued aspects of the system, we will lose a major opportunity," Mr Ovens said. "We will be back to a two-track approach, one which values internal assessment and one which doesn't.
"If external assessment is seen as the preferred route, there is the danger that those who are internally assessed will be regarded as having something inferior. Where is parity of esteem then?"
Mr Ovens added: "It is fundamental to lifelong learning that people can gain valuable qualifications one unit at a time."
Meanwhile lecturers at last weekend's Educational Institute of Scotland conference in Perth (pages four and five) reflected the school-college divide.
Kirsty Devaney, a Dundee College lecturer, said any boycott of internal assessment, as agreed by delegates, would penalise FE students taking free-standing units "with no intention of taking an external exam".
The number of students following Higher Still units in colleges was far greater than the number of school students taking Highers in S5 and S6. There were students taking core skills units, others with special educational needs following Access 3 courses and large numbers of adult returners.
Courses would be impossible to deliver if a boycott went ahead.