John Randall is to be the new chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency. He will leave the Law Society, where he is director of professional standards and development, with responsibility for the introduction of National Vocational Qualifications.
Mr Randall will face immediate pressure from funding council officials to put institutions' learning targets to the test. The Higher Education Funding Council for England wants the agency to seek the right, through legislation if necessary, to check whether objectives which universities and colleges set themselves are "appropriate".
Peter Milton, HEFCE's director of quality assessment who will move to the new agency, said such a move would encourage institutions to be clearer about standards and what students should be expected to know and do after completing a course.
"At the moment we are trying to persuade institutions to be clearer about their objectives. But we have no right to go in and challenge whether those objectives are appropriate. That could be one of a number of possible ways forward for the agency. But it would need a change in statute unless we could get a collective agreement from the sector," he said.
Mr Randall said that monitoring standards would be high on the agenda.
"There is a wide expectation that Sir Ron Dearing's higher education inquiry will have something to say about standards. I have experience of a number of standards-based systems which has given me an insight into this area."
The agency, which began work this month, will inherit around Pounds 10 million as it takes over the business and services of the Higher Education Quality Council and HEFCE's quality assessment division. It will take over subscription arrangements between institutions and the HEQC, and enter into contracts with funding councils.
But the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has said it will wait to see what is on offer before it contracts with the agency.
Mr Randall plans to work full-time at the agency from July. He is a former deputy president of the National Union of Students and was deputy president of the Civil Service Union from 1981 to 1987.
The Dearing committee is likely to ask the agency to include "key skills", such as communication, numeracy and teamwork, among aspects of learning it assesses.
Judith Evans, a member of the committee and an independent director of the agency, said that skills which transfer to the workplace should be made a transparent and accredited core of all courses.