The London School of Economics resolved to break free from Quality Assurance Agency scrutiny this week, leading the elite Russell Group of universities in open revolt.
MPs, peers and trade unions joined the LSE in questioning the future of the agency. Ministers attempted to head off the attacks this week by announcing a rethink of the quality assurance framework, designed to slash the burden of scrutiny. But promises of a 40 per cent reduction in teaching inspections failed to stem the crisis.
Documents from the academic board of the LSE reveal that the school is planning to "secede from [its] engagements with the QAA".
The board passed a motion last week saying that the QAA has: infringed academic freedom, imposed its own bureaucratic and pedagogical agenda, neglected student "intellectual development" and used incompetent and unprofessional reviewers.
The LSE board said that the framework being rolled out in Scotland and due to be introduced in England from January 2002 would exacerbate the problems, increasing the emphasis on bureaucratic models preferred by the QAA.
If the LSE faced legal problems breaking away from the QAA, it "should publicly ask the Russell Group to explore with the DFEE [Department for Education and Employment] the possibility of drawing up an alternative quality assurance system... the new QAA emphasis on standards is an insult to the Russell Group", the motion continued.
The LSE is expected to win support. Earlier this month, King's College London disowned its QAA audit report, claiming the agency failed to "intellectually engage" with the college. Oxbridge has frequently expressed alarm at the QAA's regime.
In a separate move, the Association of University Teachers called on the Better Regulation Task Force to review university regulation.
General secretary David Triesman, a member of the task force, said he was optimistic that the group would regard quality assurance as a "very suitable" subject and that the QAA would be unlikely to survive a review in its current form.
"The task force has five government-backed principles of good regulation, and the QAA does not adhere to a single one of them," Mr Triesman said.
Neither the LSE nor the AUT were convinced by the DFEE's announcement of a rethink of the framework, which was revealed in The THES last week.
Education secretary David Blunkett confirmed that because of concerns that the framework will fail to deliver the promised "lighter touch", he had told the QAA to cut inspections.
Mr Blunkett said that under the proposals, all university departments that achieved "good scores" in the current round of subject reviews would be exempt from QAA review in the next round.
A small proportion of the exempt departments will be sampled, by agreement, to provide a benchmark of good practice.
Mr Blunkett said that to qualify for exemption, departments must score a minimum of 21 out of 24, scoring highly in all six aspects of provision assessed, with at least the top grade four out of four in three categories.
He said the plan would lead to a 40 per cent reduction in inspections, as most departments have achieved these requirements.
John Randall, chief executive of the QAA, said: "The agency is committed to delivering, through the new academic review method, the lighter touch that is sought."
Universities UK cautiously welcomed the announcement as "a step in the right direction, but only a first step in tackling the wider issue of accountability costs". But the LSE is set to stick by its decision.
The exemption plan takes no account of universities' fears that the QAA will impose its quality management model across the sector. It will not change the agency's plans for institution-wide audits that impose numerous rules and regulations.
The AUT said the QAA plan was too little too late. "Such piecemeal and ad hoc announcements do not address the overall role of the QAA and regulation, which needs a wholesale review," said an AUT spokesman.
The AUT's call was backed in a House of Lords debate this week by Tory peer Lord Norton of Louth.
The House of Commons select committee on education and employment also increased pressure for a review when it highlighted the burden of QAA inspections in its report on student retention.
The committee proposed a merger of the teaching quality assessments and research assessment exercise to reduce the bureaucratic burden on universities.