The government has unveiled new proposals for granting degree-awarding powers.
Under one option, only public institutions would be given indefinite powers, while corporate and private universities would have to reapply to be able to award a degree after having the powers for a fixed period.
Under a second option, presented in a Department for Education and Skills discussion paper this week, all institutions would enter a probationary period followed by an external audit before they could award degrees indefinitely.
The paper's suggestions follow what it calls "significant opposition" to previous proposals that degree-awarding powers granted under modernised rules should be renewed every five years, subject to an audit by the Quality Assurance Agency.
The original proposals were designed to safeguard standards in an increasingly diverse sector and against a background of growing competition for international students, many of whom are attracted to the UK because of its reputation for high-quality courses.
The paper says that while degree-awarding powers are currently awarded on an indefinite basis, "there is no mechanism for addressing doubts as to whether an organisation is maintaining the high standards it was required to meet when degree-awarding powers were granted".
It also says there are concerns that, with the prospect of more private organisations entering the higher education market, "it is not possible to make the granting of degree-awarding powers conditional on participation in the current system of checks that apply to publicly funded institutions".
The paper dismisses claims that introducing time-limited powers would destabilise organisations and leave them subject to greater risk of legal action from students. But it accepts there is no reason why institutions waiting to apply for degree-awarding powers should be required to renew them every five years while those that already have them are not.
A two-tier system under which only private institutions would have to renew their powers to award a degree after a fixed term would be a more equitable approach, it suggests.
While introducing a probationary period would mean the granting of powers was based on a longer track record, the risk that there would subsequently be no way to monitor private institutions would be a "major drawback", it says.
Institutions have been given until June 25 to respond to the proposals.