Some specialist institutions such as art schools and music conservatoires have been largely ignoring the extensive guidance produced by quality watchdogs without seriously compromising their academic standards, it was claimed this week.
A report from the Quality Assurance Agency summarises the results of inspections at 24 specialist institutions, including the Institute of Education; the University of the Arts, London; and Trinity College of Music.
It found that "a relatively large number" were not engaging properly with the QAA's "academic infrastructure" - including codes, guidelines and benchmarks. But in general the institutions were "satisfactorily managing academic standards".
This apparent contradiction has led some critics to argue that institutions can manage well without the extensive QAA literature, which includes a ten-volume code of practice, benchmark statements about degree standards and detailed "programme specifications" stating what students can expect to learn.
Roger Cook, director of planning and development at Paisley University, said: "At the root of this is the flawed psychology of reviewers, if they think you know what you are doing generally they will overlook petty details like their academic infrastructure. If they think you're all over the place, then they cite the infrastructure as if it is a holy tome. The other implication is that the whole QAA exercise since 1992 has been a waste of money."
The QAA's report says one institution had only "limited and unsympathetic" engagement with the infrastructure, and "several" institutions had been advised to use the code of practice "more systematically".
The QAA told The Times Higher that it was wrong to conclude that smaller institutions do not need to use the infrastructure. "The paper makes a strong case for the need for specialist institutions to engage fully with the academic infrastructure if they are not to become marginalised," a spokeswoman said.