A review of the Higher National certificates and diplomas taken by 30, 000 students in colleges was launched by the Scottish Vocational Education Council this week.
The council's consultation paper says that a radical overhaul in HN programmes is not needed. But developments both in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom since the awards were last scrutinised in 1987 suggest action is needed.
Pressures include the demands for a credit system which would allow students to shift from one college to another without breaking their studies, the demands for education reforms post-16 and the shake-up of degree-level studies along modular lines.
More than 1,000 HN courses could be affected by the review. Colleges will have to cater for a wider ability range among students seeking HN studies if the post-16 reforms and the merger of academic and vocational reforms go ahead. Many students do not achieve the grades needed for entry to higher education. This is because under the current education system the narrowness of academic studies leads to many failing. With a broader, more vocational approach, greater numbers are expected to make the grade.
The review mirrors developments south of the border where the future of all 16 to 19 education is under scrutiny and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications is considering the extension of general national vocational qualifications to cover higher-level courses. But Scotvec has had strong warnings from employers, students and colleges during a preliminary consultation exercise that "if it ain't broke, we mustn't fix it".
Tom Drake, Scotvec's assistant director in charge of the review, said: "There is a plea for stability." In the bewildering scene of FE qualifications, HN awards are seen as dependable and readily-understood, although there are tensions between their role as a route towards degrees and as a pre-employment qualification.
Since the higher certificates and diplomas were reformed seven years ago, when courses and assessments were broken up into units, their flexible structure has appealed to colleges looking to respond to their own local and often highly specialised markets (the HNC in waste management, developed by Stow College in Glasgow, is one classic example).
Enrolments on HN courses have also risen dramatically from 11,700 in 1987-88 - the last year when the traditional HN courses were available - to 30,988 last year. According to Scotvec, the rate of expansion is almost three times greater than in England and Wales.
South of the border, HNCs and HNDs are seen as having a less secure position, being offered by only one of the three awarding bodies (the Business and Technology Education Council).
If, however, customer pressure ensures that higher certificates and diplomas remain in a revamped general national vocational qualification structure in Scotland, Scotvec recognises that comparability will be essential to ensure no student is disadvantaged either way across the border.