Teaching assessments may be phased out and quality measured solely by institution-wide audits. This was expected to be the focus of discussions between vice-chancellors, funding chiefs and the Quality Assurance Agency today.
Expectations that subject reviews (TQAs) could become a thing of the past grew with the news that the Russell Group of research-led universities is to discuss a campaign for an audit-only quality regime.
Warwick University pro vice-chancellor Susan Bassnett is lobbying her Russell Group colleagues to push for a system that could satisfy demands for public accountability without subject reviews.
The moves towards an audit-only approach were set in motion by education secretary David Blunkett. In March, he bounced the QAA into accepting plans to cut reviews by 40 per cent and introduce a "sampling" regime.
The QAA acknowledged in a recent paper on its future strategy that the institutional review report would "take on an added importance as a major part of the independently verified, public information about an institution".
Mr Blunkett's plan would exempt from subject review all departments with high scores from the previous round.
But this approach would disintegrate in future rounds, the QAA argued, as the assessment reports used to determine exemptions become out of date.
A source close to today's meeting confirmed that vice-chancellors and principals and the Higher Education Funding Council for England were ready to promote institutional audit.
Audit reports would be used in the absence of up-to-date subject review reports to determine which departments should continue to face subject review.
In the longer term, increased reliance on audit would diminish the need for subject review.
The Russell Group is to discuss its reaction to the latest quality initiatives next week.
Some members are keen to follow the London School of Economics' plans to secede from the QAA but Warwick is campaigning for an audit-only approach.