More than 5,000 qualifications in England studied by few or, in some cases, no students are being scrapped.
The Department for Education is pulling funding from about 40% of the 12,000 post-16 qualifications as it prepares to introduce new T-levels in September.
T-levels are post-GCSE courses, equivalent to three A-levels, developed in collaboration with businesses.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said finding the right course was like looking for a needle in a haystack.
He added: “Removing funding for qualifications that have no or low numbers of enrolments will help make sure students have a clearer choice of the qualifications on offer, and ensure they get the skills they need to progress.”
The move is the latest step in the government’s wider review of post-16 qualifications at Level 3 – A-level standard – and below.
But the head of the well respected qualification provider City and Guilds said the move would be “disastrous for social mobility”.
The qualifications purge will move closer to a system where teenagers choose at age 16 from one of three routes – A-levels, apprenticeships or T-levels.
But Tom Bewick, the head of the trade association for examining bodies the Federation of Awarding Bodies, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There are 50,000 degree courses in this country, and you haven’t had a vice-chancellor sitting here in front of you having to explain why there is so many.”
He questioned whether Whitehall officials were the people best placed, to make “really important life chance decisions about qualifications”.
“This is clearly a very top down review… vocational technical qualifications have been a great idea but they’re for other people’s children – and they certainly aren’t for the people that are in the senior levels within the Department for Education.”
What are T-levels?
T-levels will offer students a mixture of classroom learning and “on-the-job” experience during an industry placement. The first three will be available in some qualifications from September, but only 2,000 places will be on offer initially.
The qualifications – in subjects such as accountancy, catering, finance, hair and beauty and manufacturing – have been developed in collaboration with employers and businesses to meet the needs of industry and prepare students for work.
Candidates will be awarded one of four overall grades after their two years of study, ranging from distinction* to a pass.
They will also get a nationally recognised certificate which will show their overall grade and a breakdown of what they have achieved across the T-level programme.
The aim of Thursday’s announcement was to ensure all qualifications on offer were high-quality, necessary, and supported students to progress into employment or further study, the DfE said.
The kind of qualifications being scrapped are certificates for specific businesses or jobs, such as dry-stone walling, nail art and warehouse management, but they also include entry-level qualifications and one designed to boost the confidence of pupils who struggle with learning.
Some qualifications aimed at pupils with learning and physical disabilities are being axed, too.
The move is also intended to ensure funding goes towards more popular qualifications that help students learn skills they need to go on to have successful careers.
The government is seeking views on whether any of the 5,000 qualifications on the list should continue to attract public funding
Mr Bewick said not everyone would feel one of the three routes was suitable for them.
He said: “Clearly where there are qualifications where they are no longer in demand, they will discontinue.”
But he gave the example of one of the qualifications which could be at risk – Level 3 in aromatherapy, used by the Royal National College for the Blind.
“It’s actually a qualification that helps learners who have visual impairment gain access employment in the therapeutic and spa industries,” he said. “It enrols very few numbers but nevertheless that’s an example of a very niche qualification that helps people into the labour market.”
He said: “We have got young people, who are leaving school who are turned off by classroom learning. They need opportunities for learning by doing, to get practical vocational qualifications.”
City and Guilds chief executive Kirstie Donnelly said many students were simply not ready to make the jump from GCSEs to T-levels.
“Removing that vital rung on the skills ladder towards Level 3 and above will be disastrous for social mobility and leave more and more people stranded with no route into work,” she said.
“We urge the government to think carefully before removing this lifeline for people and leaving employers unable to access the skilled workforces they need.”