Standards checks are to be beefed up to give quality and funding chiefs earlier warning of "failing" universities and colleges.
The Quality Assurance Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council for England have decided to take "follow-up action" at the first sign of weaknesses in the quality of courses.
New measures for detecting problems, to be introduced immediately, could have alerted quality watchdogs earlier to failings at Thames Valley University.
But their main purpose is understood to be addressing growing concerns over the quality of higher education courses in further education colleges.
Ministers pushing for widening participation in higher education have been warned that standards in many FE colleges offering higher education may not be up to scratch.
The QAA, which may become responsible for policing the quality of all higher education in FE institutions as well as the HND courses it assesses, has found that up to a third of colleges could be found wanting by the more stringent tests it plans to introduce.
The QAA and HEFCE are to ask institutions for an improvement plan when they receive three or more grade 2s - deemed "acceptable" but needing "significant improvement" in the QAA's four-point grading system - in any subject review.
A follow-up visit by QAA assessors will then be scheduled within a year of the original inspection "to provide a focus for an improvement strategy", says a QAA circular issued to vice-chancellors and principals.
Data gathered by the QAA showed that nine out of 30 HND courses in FE colleges visited between 1996 and 1998 were given three or more grade 2s. Of 642 visits to universities in the same period, only three courses, including one at TVU, received three or more grade 2s.
Until now, follow-up visits have not been carried out unless standards have been judged "unsatisfactory" under the old assessment system or a grade 1 has been given under the new system - indicating "major shortcomings".
But the QAA says it has found that in such cases only two-thirds of recommendations for improvement made by assessors have led to some form of action by the institution concerned.
The circular says: "The QAA and the HEFCE now judge that additional follow-up for those subject providers which, although approved, show several areas of weakness in their graded profiles, is likely to be helpful in terms of working with institutions to secure quality enhancement."
The move has been billed as a "proposal" by the QAA, but the circular, dated November 10, says the new measures should be applied "as from October 1998".
Some university quality heads have complained that the new measures have been introduced without consultation.
Geoffrey Alderman, head of academic development and quality assurance at Middlesex University, said: "The new system appears to have been introduced and back-dated without any consultation whatsoever."
Peter Milton, the QAA's director of programme review, said there was no intention to consult over the issue.
"We fully intend to implement this. Institutions should be able to see that this is intended to be helpful and to encourage them to plan properly," he said.