Cambridge University is taking a stand against the Quality Assurance Agency's plans for a new quality assurance regime.
It is now the only institution refusing to take part in a fresh round of audits designed to probe universities' systems for monitoring and maintaining quality.
Cambridge quality chiefs have told the QAA they want auditors to treat their university with a "lighter touch", taking account of recent excellent teaching quality assessment results.
And they say it is unreasonable to expect Cambridge to be subjected to a full institutional audit at a time when it is facing a heavy round of further inspections from teaching quality assessors.
The university's position represents a serious challenge to the QAA's proposed new quality system, which includes institutional audit. The QAA cannot afford to make an exception for Cambridge over the issue and may have to seek a compromise.
John Randall, QAA chief executive, has been holding emergency talks with Alec Broers, Cambridge University's vice-chancellor, to try to break the deadlock. Mr Randall's only comment on the situation this week was to say:
"We are having a constructive debate."
But Graeme Rennie, the principal assistant registrar at Cambridge who has been involved in the talks, said Cambridge wanted the QAA to turn its stated aim to reduce the burden of external scrutiny on institutions into reality. He pointed out that although Cambridge has not been audited for six years, it has achieved ten top scores in recent quality assessments.
"Our experience of the quality assessment exercise is that although the main concentration is on the subject area, assessors do pay considerable attention to institutional quality assurance policies. It is not an accident if a university gets good assessment results time after time," he said.
Oxford University, which has not yet been invited by the QAA to take part in the audit programme, said this week it was reserving its position on whether it would back the stand taken by Cambridge.