It is the bedrock of national academic standards, but universities fear that the fragile external examiner system could collapse under the glare of the Freedom of Information Act.
A debate is raging among university information specialists about whether they should - or whether they can - keep confidential reports on degree standards prepared by a quiet unsung army of external examiners.
While some argue that the Act will open up this secretive and often all-too-cosy world to legitimate public scrutiny, others say that a system based on trust, goodwill and discretion will collapse if examiners know that their reports will become public documents.
So serious are concerns for the future of the system that one manager at Essex University suggested that external examiners could be required to sign confidentiality clauses in their contracts to prevent the release of their reports under the Freedom of Information Act.
In 2003, universities saw off a government-led drive to force them to publish the reports in full on a Teaching Quality Information website for prospective students, as part of the new "light-touch" Quality Assurance Agency inspection regime.
After bitter lobbying, universities secured agreement that externals now merely have to sign off the standards on each course with simple "yes" or "no" answers while their full reports remain secret.
But last week, Richard Stock, records manager at Essex University, told an electronic FoI discussion forum: "Our feeling is that the whole external examiner system will fall apart if examiners believe their reports will be disclosed further down the line. They may not be as honest."
There have been concerns that academics may also be reluctant to act as external examiners if their reports were to be made public, which, in turn, could open them up to potential legal action.
Essex's proposed plan to withhold publication of external reports would rely on section 41 of the Act, a clause that allows public bodies to keep information secret where it has been provided in confidence and where the person providing the information is likely to sue the body for breach of confidence if it discloses the information.
On the other hand, the Department of Constitutional Affairs has issued guidance warning public bodies against entering into confidentiality agreements to avoid disclosure unless they are essential for the conduct of business.
Matthew Zawadzki, records manager at Sheffield University, told the discussion group that if Essex was to declare external examiners' reports exempt from disclosure, it would have to be "brave enough" to argue in each case that it was in the public interest to keep them secret.
He said: "It's important to remember that the Act is there for just this type of scenario - to make previously confidential, publicly held information available and to challenge often unsubstantiated concerns relating to the confidentiality of information."
Tony Mann, head of mathematics at the University of Greenwich, said: "Since universities claim that external examiners are a major part of their quality assurance, it would seem perverse not to publish their reports. There are those who have criticised the external examining system as being potentially somewhat cosy, and withholding reports will not add to public confidence."
Mr Stock said that he had mooted the idea of confidentiality agreements as part of a discussion on FoI and that Essex had no plans to operate such a policy.
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