Tougher inspections that place a greater emphasis on the comparability of standards between universities could be a feature of the future quality assurance regime.
The suggestion is made in a consultation document, Future arrangements for quality assurance in England and Northern Ireland, launched this week.
"Comparability of standards is an important issue, and we consider that there is scope in institutional audit to strengthen the way standards are approached," says the document, drawn up by universities' representative bodies and funding councils, with advice from the Quality Assurance Agency.
It outlines plans to change the system to better address the question of the comparability of standards "without compromising institutional autonomy".
The proposals follow an inquiry by a cross-party committee of MPs this summer, which declared the system for safeguarding standards "unfit".
The sector has argued that while there is room for improvement, there is no evidence of "systemic failure", and the document sets out plans to make quality assurance processes "more accountable, rigorous, transparent, flexible, responsive and public-facing".
This includes a greater focus in institutional audits on plagiarism, mechanisms for ensuring high standards for international students, staff training and development, feedback on students' work, and information provided to potential students.
Instead of the current six-year cycle, audits would be run on a rolling basis to allow issues "that might vary from institution or from time to time" to be examined.
It also proposes introducing a third formal judgment in audit reports on the information that universities provide about their courses, and changing the terminology used to describe judgments.
The QAA currently expresses "confidence", "limited confidence" or "no confidence" in two areas, but this language can be "ambiguous", the document suggests.
The deadline for responses is 5 March 2010.