A dissident group of elite universities is hatching plans to break free from the Quality Assurance Agency’s inspection framework and set up an alternative peer-review system.
The news comes as university sources put the price of submitting to QAA scrutiny at about £200 million a year.
A campaign to force the QAA to reconsider its planned quality assurance framework through a boycott of the system led by University College London has attracted the support of at least a dozen senior university figures, UCL said this week.
It is also understood that back-up plans for an alternative system are being discussed privately.
UCL vice-provost Michael Worton confirmed this week that he had received varying degrees of support from “a dozen or so” universities, including Oxford, Essex, Newcastle and Swansea.
Professor Worton said: “We are tentatively working on producing a single document. The funding council currently pays the QAA to conduct subject reviews, but someone else could do it. The idea of an alternative system has been floated. The sector has vast experience we could draw on.”
It is understood that several senior university officials are keen to have a system based on peer review, perhaps on an international footing, or based around the elite Russell Group of universities. A Russell Group source said the notion was “not inconceivable.”
Geoffrey Alderman, visiting professor at Middlesex University, said that not only were breakaway talks happening, but a number of companies had expressed an interest in providing “kitemarking” for British universities that could bypass the QAA.
“A bit of competition for the QAA would be no bad thing,” he said. “I would encourage the rebels in their endeavours.”
Under the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, funding councils must ensure there is assessment of teaching quality, but there are no requirements on how this should be done or who should do it. Institutions have to provide the funding councils with information they may reasonably require to inform funding.
A Higher Education Funding Council of England spokesperson said: “We have a contract with the QAA to fulfil our legal requirements.”
Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute and former head of the QAA’s predecessor, the Higher Education Quality Council, said that “in the longer run, a move to a number of different systems does seem to me to be inevitable” as institutions are grouped according to their status and mission.
University sources said this week that the cost of each subject review visit to each university department was £250,000.