Links between colleges and universities to fast-track people to degrees should not be a random relationship between institutions, a leading figure in the Scottish Funding Council said this week.
Ali Jarvis, who chairs the council's access and inclusion committee, gave notice that it would be taking a more robust view of how it funds these "articulation" arrangements and expect them to be more formalised.
Speaking at a conference in Edinburgh on progression from college to university, organised by Holyrood Events, she said there would be no "sacred cows" in the council's approach. It would redirect resources to where it would get the best return on its investment.
Since 2008, the council has been promoting this provision by paying out pound;3 million a year to "articulation hubs" of colleges and universities in five areas of Scotland. These are now being reviewed by the funding council and a report is expected by next February
The result of the hubs' activities has been an increase in the number of articulated students, from 1,952 in 2006-07 to an estimated 3,370 in 2010- 11. But, Ms Jarvis said, some of the arrangements were more structured and formalised than others. There were also wide variations in costs, from pound;380 per articulated student in the cheapest hub to pound;1,380 in the dearest.
The most common arrangement is for Higher National Certificate students in colleges to enter the second year of degree courses and HN Diploma students to enter in year three, where universities have given these courses "advanced standing". The most recent official figures showed that, of the 38,000 HN students in colleges, only 2,600 moved on to university in this way.
But the funding council is concerned they may not be getting the same quality of experience as direct entry students and that there may not be "parity of respect". Its figures showed that 80 per cent of articulated students go on to finish their course, compared with 87 per cent of all students.
The university with one of the most sophisticated systems for articulation is Abertay in Dundee, whose principal, Bernard King, told the conference: "You cannot just bolt on HN courses to degree courses, like welding the back and front ends of a crashed car. The inevitable will happen when the car fails its MOT - and it certainly isn't a good experience for the driver.
"These arrangements have to be done on a case-by-case basis, recognising that there are differences between courses in the two sectors."
Abertay now has articulation agreements with 14 colleges, and Professor King said they would only work if there was strong transition support for the students, many of whom say the level and nature of the workload is a big issue when they move from FE to HE.
He also pointed out that there was a "pedagogic divergence" between colleges and universities: the former were involved in competence-based learning while, in the latter, it was enquiry-based.
Brian Lister, principal of Stevenson College Edinburgh, warned that more students were applying to attend college, while the number of university places to which they could move had remained the same.
The future for articulated arrangements could also be affected by the increasing competition for college and university places, and the fact that more students were choosing to study locally because they could not afford to live away from home, Mr Lister added.
Jennifer Cadiz, deputy president of the National Union of Students Scotland, said it was "vital that this country doesn't develop a two-tier system whereby traditional students go to university and, say, lone parents from disadvantaged communities go to college".
She added: "It's as much a tragedy if someone from Morningside feels that university is the only route for them, as it is someone from Muirhouse thinking university is certainly not for them. College should be an option among many others, not just a fall-back."