Pioneering qualifications which allow cash-strapped colleges to cut their teaching costs by using podcasts, self-study and internet learning are being developed by one of the country's biggest exam boards.
With national budgets to be slashed by a quarter by 2015, many colleges are struggling to balance the books, and hundreds of teaching jobs across the country have been axed in recent months.
A pilot scheme launched by exam board OCR aims to cut costs by requiring students to carry out more independent learning, with less time spent in the classroom.
In a radical overhaul of the traditional course-development process, colleges themselves are being asked to help design the new qualifications.
OCR chief executive Mark Dawe insisted the cheaper courses would still effectively meet the needs of students, colleges and employers. "In these tight times, one response could be to provide `less for less', but the real challenge is to provide `more for less'," he said.
With the budgets of both schools and colleges under increasing pressure, the OCR scheme is the first attempt to redesign qualifications to make them cheaper.
But concerns have been raised by teaching and student unions that the move could mean students receive less face-to-face support.
Adrian Prandle, education policy adviser at the ATL union, said: "Innovation is good, and as important as ever while colleges deal with current financial pressures.
"However, many students who have struggled with their education in the past benefit greatly from the contact time they spend with their teachers, and we would urge caution against disadvantaging the already disadvantaged by taking this away.
"Developments such as podcast learning should be in addition to time with lecturers, not instead of it. What is important with projects like this is that they have input from those in the classroom at every stage."
Under the scheme, qualifications have been designed for courses including GCSE and A-level equivalent certificates in hospitality at Westminster Kingsway College.
Geoff Booth, director of the college's school of hospitality, said the new approach would give students a "much richer" experience of learning.
"We've got to get a bit more canny with our use of IT," he said. "Students might be able to do up to 20 per cent of the learning on their own and 80 per cent in the classroom."
Other courses are also being developed at North Hertfordshire and Walsall colleges.
But Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, warned that "attempting to deliver teaching on the cheap" by cutting teaching time could bring the risk of "serious damage to the reputation and standards of education in our colleges".
"This may be seen as a short-term solution, but if quality suffers and achievement declines then a college will suffer in terms of funding and possible inspection grades," she said.
Toni Pearce, vice-president for FE at the National Union of Students, said: "There is certainly no evidence to suggest that less teaching leads to better qualifications. Students are longing for more competent use of technology, but not in lieu of face-to-face teaching."
If the models currently being developed are successful, they could be rolled out across the country by September 2012.
OCR's director of strategy Liam Sammon said the exam board was looking to extend the partnership approach across all of its vocational qualifications, and hoped to develop courses in other subjects.
The pilot scheme is being funded by a pound;96,000 grant from the Skills Funding Agency. An agency spokeswoman said: "The agency fully supports the sector to make efficiency savings by providing the same or better delivery for less costs, but quality still must remain a priority."
Original headline: Cut-price courses lower costs by slashing teaching contact time