Staff shortages may force the Quality Assurance Agency to stop auditing overseas operations, a move that could undermine Britain in the global higher education market.
Acting QAA chief executive Peter Williams warned vice-chancellors that the "heavy demands" on the agency's resources as it moves to a new regime meant that it "may have to put the overseas audit programme into abeyance and delay the introduction of audits of collaborative provision".
Mr Williams acknowledged that the move would not be desirable. No decision to halt the overseas audits had been made and he hoped to avoid it, but staffing levels were "finite", he said.
The QAA audits UK universities' operations abroad to ensure they are of the same standard as programmes delivered at home.
In his 1998 annual report, former QAA chief executive John Randall said:
"Nowhere is the maintenance of standards and the credibility of awards more important than in overseas markets."
Mr Williams said he shared these sentiments. He said that Australian regulators had begun moves to audit overseas programmes following the market advantage such audits had given the United Kingdom.
But he said the QAA would not have sufficient staff to handle the activity, at least while the new regime was in its first cycle, from 2002-05. Under the regime, the QAA will move from a six-year to a three-year audit cycle and then revert to a six-year cycle in 2005.
"The new system will mean double the amount of audit activity and create fairly major staff commitments. We do not want to take on new staff to cover the overseas audits and have to get rid of them after the intense, short-term extra effort," Mr Williams said.