The Nolan committee on standards in public life is turning its spotlight on the governance and management of universities and colleges.
Lecturers' unions said they hoped the inquiry would produce principles providing for greater accountability and democratic participation in new universities and further education colleges.
The running of further and higher education institutions will be compared with that of housing associations, Training and Enterprise Councils and grant-maintained schools.
Despite the committee's announcement of a "broad brush" review, the time-scale for the process allows for close scrutiny of best and worst practice. Evidence is being collected for public hearings in October to January, and a report is expected next Easter. Education quangos, such as the funding councils, escape further scrutiny. General principles for quango behaviour and accountability were set out in the first Nolan committee report.
"The committee will undertake a broad brush review of certain aspects of the management of local public spending bodies," said Nolan committee press secretary Peter Rose.
"By this the committee means 'not for profit' bodies which are neither fully elected nor appointed by ministers, but which provide public services that are wholly or largely publicly funded. Although we are not investigating allegations of wrong-doing, we are looking for principles about conflicts of interest, propriety and appointments."
A paper proposing the key issues to be addressed is likely to be published by the end of July.
Initial evidence from unions is expected to call for comparison of former polytechnics with the way traditional universities are run.
The Association of University Teachers said it hoped Nolan could introduce greater transparency into the governance of newly incorporated universities. "There is a very high level of secrecy at key directorial levels and in such a system it is perfectly possible not only for things to go wrong but to be incredibly difficult to discover," said general secretary David Triesman.
Lecturers' union Natfhe has already expressed its concern to Nolan about the narrow range of governors on new university and college boards.
* The Nolan announcement coincided with the publication of a code of behaviour for members of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Graeme Davies, HEFCE chief executive, said the code was adopted in February.
The code says that the 14 council members should act in good faith, respond to public requests for information and not profit from their position.
They must complete a register of interests for themselves and "close relations", as well as one of all gifts received on council business.
Mr Davies said that if a member's outside interest bore directly on council business, he or she would be obliged to withdraw from the discussion.
The ultimate court of appeal on breaches of the code was the Department for Education, he said.
No members of the public have yet demanded to scrutinise these lists, which are available on request at HEFCE in Bristol. But it includes gifts ranging from book tokens to paintings, pottery and a trowel.