Higher subjects will have to attract consistently fewer than 100 candidates over a five-year period before any action is taken - and initially action will only take the form of a review involving consultation.
This was made clear by the Scottish Qualifications Authority as it defended its move to scrutinise subjects with a low take-up, triggered where no more than 100 entries have been received over that length of time - or none has been received.
Contrary to the impression from some reports, however, the SQA's policy affects the whole National Qualifications portfolio, not just Highers. The biggest impact is likely to be felt in Higher National (HN) programmes, where courses have mushroomed as colleges have developed their own provision and this has been added to the SQA's portfolio.
In an interview with The TES Scotland in June, Neil Robertson, the SQA's depute director with responsibility for HNs, revealed the intention is to streamline the existing 1,100 programmes to around 400 by 2008; the number of HN courses in the arts alone is likely to drop from 80 to eight HNCs and eight HNDs. The result will be that there will be a more genuinely national HN portfolio.
The rationalisation of the HN courses is therefore more severe than at Higher level where 34 subjects attracted fewer than 100 entries and another 27 had no entries at all.
In 2003, there were 167,000 entries at Higher, of which some 1,200 were in subjects with fewer than 100 candidates - less than 1 per cent of the total.
Mike Haggerty, the SQA's head of communication, said the issue of low take-up would only "come on to the radar" once a five-year trend had been established and even at that stage no final decision would be taken without consultation. The eventual outcome could mean transferring Higher hairdressing to HN, for example, rather than the subject disappearing altogether. It could also mean subjects being studied with unit assessment and no final exam.
No candidate currently on a course would be affected, Mr Haggerty said.
He also made it clear that educational factors would not be the only consideration and that minority subjects may be protected on the basis of special cultural or economic importance.
The Scottish Executive has already given a guarantee that Gaelic would be preserved under these wider principles - despite only having 91 Higher entries this year. The least popular subjects, Higher manufacturing and hospitality event supervision, had two entries each.
Mr Haggerty said the policy "aims to strike the balance between providing choice for candidates and the use of public funding in offering that choice. Our priority is to offer a portfolio that is relevant, modern and fit for purpose."