The new quality assurance regime faces a make-or-break test as fiercely independent Cambridge University becomes one of the first institutions to be audited under the light-touch system.
Quality Assurance Agency auditors will descend on Cambridge, one of the most vociferous campaigners against excessive external scrutiny, early next month. It has twice refused to be audited by the QAA and has not had a quality audit for 11 years.
Cambridge's self-evaluation document says: "The key characteristics which underpin the university's approach to educational provision and its quality assurance remain fundamentally unchanged since the last audit and are likely to remain so."
Geoffrey Alderman, academic dean at London's American Intercontinental University, a former head of quality at Middlesex University and a former QAA reviewer, said: "It is not Cambridge that is on trial - it is the QAA's new process. Cambridge does not need the imprimatur of the QAA. The status of Cambridge is authenticated by its peers. The sector will be looking to see a light touch."
The new system sweeps away the old combination of periodic institution-wide audits and the universal inspection of teaching quality at departmental level. Instead, universities will face a six-yearly cycle of institution-wide audits lasting five days.
Any clash between Cambridge and the QAA will be significant. The QAA wants universities to demonstrate that they have "corporate" control over the quality of their degrees with a close eye cast over the activities of the different departments and faculties.
Cambridge operates a highly devolved system, with control over standards largely delegated to the faculties and tutorials delivered through its colleges.
Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute and former head of the now-defunct Higher Education Quality Council, said: "The previous audit of Cambridge in 1992 raised issues about its ability to control the standard of its awards. It will be very interesting indeed to see what difference 11 years have made and whether these issues still remain."
Some 25 institutions will receive an audit by a team of 300 auditors during the next two academic terms, and the first reports will be published in July.
Many experts have claimed the new system will not significantly reduce the burden on institutions. Moira Collett, academic registrar at Essex University, which will be audited in November, said: "With all the paperwork we felt that it was a lot like the old system and certainly a lot worse than the light touch promised."