Quality watchdogs are to rank universities and colleges according to their "maturity" to determine which can be trusted to monitor themselves. The plan emerged following the third meeting last week of the joint planning group for a new higher education quality agency, writes Tony Tysome.
Representatives of vice chancellors, college principals and funding council chiefs, are looking at institutions' quality assurance arrangements. Those whose systems are considered robust and comprehensive - described as "mature" - could be given a high level of automony, while others deemed to be relatively immature would be subject to regular external assessment.
Institutions may then be placed in a four-tier system on the basis of their maturity. However, even those judged to be extremely mature would be required to build some external monitoring into their quality assurance regimes.
The idea is to balance institutional autonomy, strongly defended by vice chancellors, against accountability and value for money insisted on by funding councils and politicians.
Planning group members hope the proposed system would be flexible enough to cater for the different circumstances and needs of institutions, while satisfying the Government that universities and colleges have not been allowed to lapse into cosy self-regulation.
Mike Laugharne, head of quality assessment for the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and a member of the planning group, said it also reflected an acceptance within the group that a new quality system would need to be phased in.
"It is now been recognised that there may well be some kind of differential quality arrangement under which more mature institutions could have less of an external quasi-inspectorial set of arrangements foisted upon them. There is a substantial issue about how we move towards that, and whether some institutions may not be mature enough to move in that direction, and in that case we will have to consider continuing a sequence of assessments."
Martin Gaskell, chairman of the Standing Conference of Principals and a member of the joint planning group, suggested that the idea of a differential quality system might be part of a "clear steer" to be given to the new agency.
The planning group is required to ensure that a new agency is in operation by next January and is expected to make an interim report to Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, after its meeting on April 4.