The higher education quality watchdog has revealed that ministers, not vice-chancellors, are dictating the blueprint of the new quality assurance regime, raising questions about universities' right to self-regulation.
In a private letter to a colleague, Peter Williams, acting chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, confirms that higher education minister Margaret Hodge will give the go-ahead to the final blueprint for the regime.
He says that her refusal to endorse the plans could jeopardise the process.
In the letter, Mr Williams says: "Although the funding council, Universities UK and the QAA have all pretty well agreed what the method and transitional arrangements should be, Hefce (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) has insisted on getting ministerial clearance."
Mr Williams says that Ms Hodge "has not been prepared to give clearance" to the QAA's operational description until she has considered it alongside the report from Sir Ron Cooke's working group on the publication of quality assurance information.
Ms Hodge is believed to have raised concerns about the planned "light touch" for universities, fearing that proposals agreed by the sector are insufficiently rigorous to ensure public accountability, and has suggested changes. She hopes the Cooke report will include measures to increase accountability.
Mr Williams says that Ms Hodge has seen the QAA's blueprint for an audit-based regime, which all but abolishes subject review, and has a copy of the Cooke report, which is understood to include plans for student feedback and for publishing summary reports by external examiners, who will "sign-off" university courses.
Mr Williams says: "This extensive delay (we were ready to move forward early in January when the minister first refused to endorse the proposals) means that we have lost six vital weeks from the very tight timetable."
Geoffrey Alderman, a former QAA reviewer, said: "This is an absolute scandal. Why Ms Hodge should have the final word I don't know. What happened to self-regulation? We were told that the QAA was to be an independent body, but this is a complete and utter sham."
Mr Williams told The THES : "The issues you raise are really a matter for Hefce and/or the department to comment on."
Hefce said it had a legal duty to secure assessment of the quality of education in the institutions it funded. It said: "We decide how to discharge that duty. But in reaching those decisions, we have always, of course, consulted widely with all interested parties."