Up to six college regions will soon be en route to having some of their non-recognised qualifications (NRQs) credit-rated by the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework in a bid to bolster their status.
Non-recognised programmes do not lead to National Certificates, Scottish Vocational Qualifications, Higher National Diplomas or Certificates, but are usually designed to meet the specific needs of a local employer or students with learning difficulties.
In many cases, they provide a first step back into education for students after a long disengagement from learning - but their lack of credit rating has meant they have been the first victims of recent budget cuts.
Chief executive Aileen Ponton said the SCQF had accepted bids from four regional bodies for support in gaining credit rating for NRQs, while a further two were likely to follow in the coming weeks.
Helping colleges to credit-rate some of their courses would support students to progress into further learning, in line with the "flexible learner journey" envisaged by the government, she said. The offer to support colleges in this area was a response to institutions' concerns about the financial future of these courses, she added.
According to the Scottish Funding Council, about 95 per cent of college funding is based on hours of learning, not student numbers. The vast majority of funding therefore goes to courses that lead to recognised qualifications, rather than NRQs, which are often shorter.
Training days have already been scheduled for the first four regions, and by the end of July, progress should be made towards doing the same for the remaining two. A consultant will provide further one-to-one support on areas such as programme design, and colleges will receive some funding to assist the process.
The SCQF has received assurances from all principals that the credit- rating process can be completed by February 2013. Mrs Ponton is also hopeful the funding will continue into next year to allow for more regions to go through the process.
John Henderson, chief executive of Scotland's Colleges, said he hoped to see the SCQF's scheme extended: "Having such courses assessed and accredited in this way would be a significant step forward. Often these courses help those furthest from the labour market, such as those with additional support needs or looking to return to education."
Stacey Devine, NUS Scotland women's officer, said: "Credit-rating NRQs is a welcome step in ensuring that students are rewarded for their efforts in learning, as well as improving their opportunities to move forward in further education or employment."
She cautioned that NRQs had "a real value" as access courses and programmes for students with learning disabilities, and needed to be protected "even when they can't become recognised qualifications".
Scottish Funding Council statistics suggest that 2010-11 saw 110,084 student enrolments on to courses that do not lead to a recognised qualification - a third of the total 339,527 enrolments.
The often short duration of courses and low number of hours meant they made up only around 7 per cent of learning hours that year.
The number of NRQ enrolments was 24 per cent lower than in 2009-10 - a fall attributed to college budget cuts.
Of enrolments on courses leading to NRQs, just over 65 per cent had a duration of up to 40 hours; just under a third covered less than 10 hours' learning; and just under 1 per cent were full-time.
Source: Scottish Funding Council college performance indicators 2010-11.