An elite band of universities could be given "beacon" status under hastily redrafted plans for the future quality assurance regime drawn up this week in an attempt to end the deadlock over quality ratings.
The Quality Assurance Agency has given universities just over three weeks to respond to a proposed framework that will band universities into three categories - "excellent", "approved" and "not approved" - according to the quality of their teaching.
Institutions with any aspect of any provision that the QAA deems "less than adequate" will join "failing" universities in the "not approved" category, and will require immediate remedial action to prevent the withdrawal of public funds.
Under the system of "naming and shaming" already adopted by ministers for schools and colleges, excellence is rewarded with "beacon" status. Universities with departments that are consistently deemed to be excellent could also be afforded the status of "beacons", the QAA says.
In further education, "beacon" colleges, judged by the government on a number of performance criteria, are given additional funds to help spread best practice.
The Department for Education and Employment played down plans for "beacon" universities. A spokesman said it was "not an issue".
But it is understood that higher education minister Tessa Blackstone has expressed her enthusiasm for such an idea. The QAA suggests in its consultation paper that universities with consistently excellent provision "could properly be regarded as a beacon that others should emulate".
The QAA's latest proposals on reporting teaching quality represent a compromise between vice-chancellors, who believed plans for using numerical gradings were too crude, and ministers, who want to see clear summative judgements for public consumption.
Under the latest compromise, three aspects of provision - teaching and learning, student progression and learning resources - will be graded on the verbal three-scale system. Any "not approved" judgement in any of the three aspects will lead to an overall summative judgement of "not approved". An overall judgement of "excellent" will be made only if departments obtain excellent grades in all three aspects.
Most institutions are expected to fall into the overall category "approved". Commentary will accompany each judgement, to allow subjective differentiation between universities in the approved category.
This week the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals confirmed that it had been involved in discussions with the DFEE and the QAA on the proposals.
David Young, CVCP policy adviser on quality assurance, denied the proposals amounted to a reinvention of the old teaching quality ranking system. But he added that there was "still a lot of detail to be developed".
"Vice-chancellors will have concerns until they see what the mechanism looks like," he said.
But while an uneasy consensus appeared to be emerging over the reporting of quality judgements, more problems emerged with other aspects of the new regime.
A report on the first pilots of the new framework, using benchmark reviews in history, chemistry and law, revealed deep concern over the role of new academic reviewers. There were deep divisions among institutions, reviewers and external examiners about the extent of their intervention and the threat to institutional autonomy.
Some of the trial universities said that the expectation that reviewers would participate in internal quality review meetings would mean institutions "would not conduct thorough and honest internal reviews".
There was also disagreement over reviewers' demands to see student work. Some institutions believed this would place them in direct conflict with external examiners.