Universities and colleges may have to foot the bill for extra international audits planned by quality watchdogs to keep a closer eye on the rapidly rising number of UK courses delivered overseas.
The Quality Assurance Agency has told The Times Higher that it is concerned that its current international audit system cannot cope with the "sudden mushrooming" of courses run in collaboration with overseas partners. The audit involves on average one foreign visit a year and is provided free.
Peter Williams, chief executive of the QAA, said the level of concern was such that the issue had risen to the top of the agency's development agenda and was soon to be the subject of high-level discussions.
He said: "Currently, we cannot hope to keep on top of the sudden mushrooming of links with institutions in other countries. With the best will in the world, we can take only a small sample of these links.
"It means that we may have to start thinking about alternatives that place the cost of that kind of external quality assurance on the institutions."
The agency's warning follows news from the British Council that the number of international students on UK courses delivered in their own countries, which is about 200,000 at present, is growing by 5 per cent a year.
It has been estimated that their numbers will be greater than that of international students coming to the UK by 2010. The trend has made officials in some countries such as China nervous about quality assurance.
Mr Williams said the QAA needed to undertake an options appraisal to decide how to handle the problem.
One option was to copy Australia and build an overseas audit element into all institutional audits. However, this could prove difficult logistically.
Another possible solution was to charge only institutions whose overseas provision was being audited.
A third was to introduce a new international standards assessment system for UK courses delivered overseas.
Mr Williams said that whatever course of action the QAA chose, it would need to take into account the fact that the agency did not currently have a "large posse" of international auditors to call upon, and that it will want to avoid overburdening institutions.
In April, the QAA will launch its biggest overseas audit ever in a single year, sending three teams of auditors to scrutinise UK courses run in China with Chinese partner institutions.
The audit will draw on information already supplied by more than 70 UK institutions running about 250 programmes in China.