A FLEXIBLE system for monitoring standards in higher education is about to be unveiled by the Quality Assurance Agency.
Its consultation paper, to be issued to institutions on Monday, is expected to present a range of options for balancing the demands of quality audit and assessment.
The paper tackles the question of whether an institution's track record should influence the level of external scrutiny to which it is subjected.
The agency is inviting institutions to comment on whether they agree with Cambridge University's view that those with a record of high quality should be treated with a lighter touch.
Some vice-chancellors believe that this would be the key to creating a more efficient and less costly quality assurance system.
But the paper is unlikely to spell out how the new regime will be funded or provide clues as to the likely level of QAA subscriptions which all institutions must pay.
In the short term subscriptions are likely to remain at around the levels set by the former Higher Education Quality Council, ranging from about Pounds 3,000 to Pounds 30,000 a year depending on the size of the institution.
John Randall, QAA chief executive, hopes to make significant savings in the medium to longer term. But his ability to do so may depend on contractual arrangements with the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The QAA has been negotiating with the funding council for a contribution to the costs of relocating to new headquarters in Gloucester and recruiting new staff, expected to total over Pounds 1 million.
The QAA already has at its disposal about Pounds 500,000 in reserves inherited from the HEQC and subscriptions' revenue from last year of about Pounds 3.2 million. It wants the funding council to contribute around another Pounds 500,000.
The funding question is important because it may place HEFCE, and through it the government, in a strong position to influence the QAA's proposals.
Some funding council officials have been pressing for a continuation of teaching quality assessment beyond the year 2000 when the current round in England winds up.
Higher education minister Baroness Blackstone has told the Lords' science and technology committee that the government wants more direct links between quality assessments and funding.