The new university quality regime "may be light touch 0but is certainly no soft touch", the man behind the latest system warned as he published the first audits.
One of the two reports, on University College Chichester, has raised eyebrows for the severity of some of its judgements.
Quality Assurance Agency chief executive Peter Williams said: "We are taking a proportionate view of an institution's performance. We will criticise where we find things worth criticising, but we will not go over the top if things can be readily put right. " The verdict on Chichester was that although there could be "broad confidence" in the college's ability to manage quality and standards, there could only be "limited confidence" in the quality of its programmes partnered by local institutions. The QAA called for action to address the problems, "without delay".
Philip Robinson, principal of Chichester, said that he accepted the criticism and did not believe that it was unduly harsh.
The reports are the first evidence of the new system in operation. A light touch was promised in 2001 when David Blunkett, who was then education secretary, abolished universal teaching quality assessments.
Universities are audited for one week every six years. The emphasis is on testing whether an institution's quality control systems are fit for purpose, rather than judging quality directly.
Mr Williams said: "It is an effective touch, and a touch that will lead to improvements." He said that key to this approach was the unprecedented level of student input.
"Students are relishing the opportunity to turn the tables on their tutors and judge them for once. They are taking it extremely seriously. And we are listening to what they tell us," he said.
Students at Bath University this week submitted a 126-page dossier to QAA auditors, outlining quality issues that they would like to see addressed.
Chris Weavers, vice-president of the National Union of Students, said:
"Students now have a much more central role, and it is undoubtedly helping to shape the way the audits go. Students are arguably best placed to evaluate quality."
The second audit published this week involved the Royal Veterinary College, which was given a clean bill of health.