EMPLOYERS are moving to bypass the Quality Assurance Agency's plans to benchmark higher education courses with their own set of industry "kitemarks" and league tables.
As the QAA moves to establish a set of subject "templates" - which will spell out students' employment prospects and the exact objectives of courses - employer-owned National Training Organisations are stealing the initiative and developing kitemarks with their own rigid criteria, based on national occupational standards.
The NTO for sport and recreation, Sprito, is leading the way with plans for a "charter for higher education". Sprito is concerned about the largely unchecked growth of graduate qualifications and the consequent misplaced expectations of graduates in its field.
Unpublished feasibility studies showed that, in some cases, graduates aspiring for jobs in the growing sports and leisure industry could often be better off with National Vocational Qualification-based Modern Apprenticeships - A-level equivalent - rather than degrees.
John Thorpe, director of Sprito's standards programme, said: "Employers should be playing more of a role in determining the industry's education needs, rather than just allowing universities to go their own way."
Over the next year Sprito will develop a charter scheme with a league table giving individual university courses a point score, based on relevance to employment. It will be voluntary but pressure to sign up will be strong. Exclusion from the list will show that the institution does not have the industry's seal of approval.
Mr Thorpe said: "Universities are free to validate their own courses and are not subject to the rules and regulations set down by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for vocational training and further education. But this will show how relevant their courses actually are."
The engineering industry is also moving quickly to set kitemarks. The engineering NTO, EMTA, has set up a working party to establish minimum "output" standards for degree courses, and to set up an industry-imposed "seal of approval" for them.
It is working with the QAA and the Engineering Professors Conference, and hopes the QAA will adopt its criteria. But it will set up its scheme with or without the cooperation of academe.
"It is a very sensitive subject," said Michael Sanderson, EMTA's chief officer. "We do not want to rock the boat and that is why we are trying to work with the professors. We hope it will be implemented in a voluntary way."
Mr Sanderson acknowledged that many academics think that the QAA's plans are too interventionist, while the employers think the QAA will not go far enough.
John Randall, chief executive of the QAA, said: "We will be happy to work with bodies who have a contribution to make." He denied the existence of a serious gulf between employers and academics.