The Russell Group is to publish a blueprint for an alternative quality assurance regime, putting the future of the Quality Assurance Agency at the top of the agenda for the new secretary of state for education, writes Phil Baty.
The abolition of the QAA, at least in its current form, was being widely predicted this week as the group of 19 top universities joined a growing list of rebels opposed to the QAA's inspection and audit regime.
Both of the main academics' unions, representing more than 100,000 staff, are formulating campaigns to oppose the QAA regime.
The Russell Group expects its paper, which could be published next month, to lead the debate when the agency and the Higher Education Funding Council open up the quality regime to further consultation later in the year.
A senior Russell Group source told The THES that the group is drawing up some common concerns through an email discussion forum with a view to publishing a position paper soon.
Key Russell Group members are unwilling to continue to cooperate fully with the QAA's regime, which is seen as a disproportionate and unwelcome infringement on academic freedom.
These include: the London School of Economics, which is attempting to formally "secede" from the QAA, attacking its regime as "insulting"; King's College London, which has confirmed it had officially rejected the QAA's audit of its internal quality assurance systems as "unacceptable, bad scholarship"; and a group of five Russell Group universities - University College London, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Birmingham - which have been involved in informal talks on how they might break free from the QAA and regulate each other.
An attempt by secretary of state for education, David Blunkett, in March to head off mounting rebellion by announcing a 40 per cent reduction in the volume of inspections was not enough to stem criticism.
While Mr Blunkett's plan, designed to cut the estimated annual £300 million spent by institutions in preparing for inspections, delighted many of the agency's critics, serious concerns remain.
Institution-wide audit activity is set to stay in place. The QAA has imposed almost 200 new rules, introduced subject benchmark standards, required every department to produce detailed programme specifications and pigeon-holed all qualifications into a strict new framework, governing the nomenclature and names of all awards.
The LSE and the Association of University Teachers have been quick to dismiss Mr Blunkett's compromise as failing to address more fundamental issues. But they are encouraged that Mr Blunkett's model has a short shelf-life of only two or three years.
Exemptions under Mr Blunkett's plan will be set according to departmental performance in the old-style inspections, which are being phased out. As the information of previous performance will rapidly become out of date, Hefce and the QAA agree that a complete rethink of quality assurance is needed.
A Hefce source said that while Mr Blunkett's plan will be nodded through, Hefce expects consultation on the longer-term future of the regime to follow.
The Russell Group source said the group hopes the Hefce/QAA consultative proposals will be acceptable. "But if proposals come out which we were unhappy with, we want to be in a position in which we can have helpful alternatives to put forward rather than simply say: 'Yah-boo, we don't like it'."