Five elite universities have joined the London School of Economics in developing plans to break free from Quality Assurance Agency scrutiny.
University College London and the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Birmingham have been in talks over setting up alternative quality assurance arrangements, which would exclude the QAA, UCL vice-provost Michael Worton confirmed this week.
The move comes as the LSE, in a separate move, develops formal plans to "secede" from its arrangements with the QAA.
Professor Worton said the sector was already witnessing the "slow demise" of the QAA - unpopular for the bureaucratic burden its regime imposes.
Professor Worton confirmed that the self-styled "gang of five" had been in discussions about how institutions could regulate themselves and provide information on quality for the public.
He said it would be feasible to abolish the QAA and to establish consortia of institutions that could harmonise their internal quality-assurance functions and validate one another's courses.
UCL has also been in discussions with overseas institutions on a global validating consortium. Any breakaway quality system would have to satisfy the funding councils, which have a legal obligation to ensure university standards are monitored. They currently contract with the QAA to undertake this responsibility.
Professor Worton said that the QAA's future rested on the success of new government-led plans to exempt top-performing university departments from the next round of QAA inspections, in a move designed to slash the bureaucracy of quality inspection.
The QAA was bounced into the plan by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and ministers, who believed the QAA's "lighter touch" policy did not go far enough.
It is intended that teaching quality inspections could be cut by 40 per cent by exempting institutions that achieved scores of more than 21 out of 24 in previous inspections and had persistently high grades across all six aspects of provision.
About 25 per cent of the exempt departments will be subject to "sampling", a less interventionist and voluntary spot check.
"There is still much to do to ensure that the quality of our education provision is assured in a sensible way," Professor Worton said, "rather than in the bureaucratically heavy and intellectually and operationally suspect way the QAA may just continue."
The LSE is unimpressed with the QAA plans. It has emerged that even the exempt departments will have to prepare new self-evaluation documents that will be monitored and judged by QAA inspectors.
All universities will remain subject to the QAA's institution-wide audits. These will introduce about 200 new rules in 11 quality assurance codes of practice, impose a strict new qualifications framework, and will make universities conform to programme specifications and subject benchmarks.