Lecturers and vice-chancellors have united in calls for the abolition of all teaching quality inspection, squaring up for a confrontation with students over the future of university quality assurance.
As consultation on a future quality regime closed today, the Association of University Teachers joined some leading vice-chancellors in calls for an end to inspection at subject level.
The AUT said that the role of the Quality Assurance Agency should be "radically slimmed down", banning it from any form of inspection at subject level.
The AUT said the "sole function" of the QAA should be to co-ordinate and oversee audits of universities' own internal quality assurance systems, based on a clear acknowledgement that autonomous institutions are responsible for their own quality.
The AUT said that a strengthened external examiner system should be the "primary mechanism" for maintaining and improving academic standards in the sector, paid for through savings made from "abolishing of subject-level assessments".
The AUT's demands echo those of vice-chancellors from the Russell Group of 19 research-led universities, which has argued that institutions can prove "perfectly well" that their own systems of quality assurance are adequate.
The AUT and Russell Group demands go further than the current consultation document, written jointly by the QAA, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals.
The paper recommends a move to a much less intrusive approach from the QAA, based on trusting institutions' own internal systems and periodically checking through a financial-style audit.
It outlines plans to slash the volume of subject-level inspection from the current 100 per cent to a minimum of just 10 per cent in the best institutions. The volume of subject review could rise above 10 per cent in institutions where risk is identified during QAA audits.
But while the AUT and Russell Group believe that even 10 per cent is excessive, the figure was dismissed as a "step too far" by former QAA chief executive John Randall, who resigned in protest at the move. Mr Randall said that the plans left universities facing too little scrutiny to ensure public confidence in standards.
Mr Randall's position has won sympathy from students. Owain James, president of the National Union of Students, said that the voice of the end-user must be at the heart of the plans, and that "students, and their parents, need clear information on externally assessed teaching quality".
The consultation paper says that clear information on quality must be provided to students, parents and employers, despite the end of universal subject review. But what information is to be provided, and how it will be published and audited has yet to be determined. A working group will report shortly on that issue.
The results of the consultation, to be examined by the QAA and Hefce with a view to launching the new regime in time for September 2002, will also be closely watched by the Cabinet Office Better Regulation Task Force, which begins its review of university regulation later this year.