Senior civil servants backed off from advising ministers to intervene directly in the Scottish Qualifications Authority examinations debacle.
This reluctance to take what was described as the "nuclear option" emerged at the start of an inquiry into the SQA's governance by the Scottish Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee.
The SQA is still dealing with the fallout from missing data, which last month hit thousands of Scottish examination results.
Mike Foulis, a senior official at the enterprise and lifelong learning department, told the committee that while ministers had the power to issue direction to a quango, this would happen only when the quango was refusing to take action to improve matters.
But committee member Elaine Thomson said things had gone "very nastily wrong" and that the lack of ministerial intervention suggested that the Scottish Executive was unaware of the situation.
Mr Foulis said it was difficult to come to conclusions until there was "soundly based evidence" on what had gone wrong at the SQA. This is being tackled in a complementary inquiry by the parliament's education committee.
Scots could still miss out on elite university places for next year if they do not apply before October 15, but the SQA said that such applications would take priority, and it is ahead of its deadlines for processing appeals.