Spain is considering setting up a national accreditation agency with the power to shut down university courses that fail to make the grade.
Official degrees are currently approved by the government, but there is no automatic requirement for further quality checks.
Universities can also create their own qualifications, although without national validity these depend entirely on the prestige of the institution for social acceptance. Initially, only these "own degrees" will be examined, although Francisco Michavila, director of the Unesco chair in university management and policy at Madrid's Polytechnic University and director of the study, is convinced that "all qualifications will eventually go through accreditation".
The "own degrees" tend to be first degrees in new subjects aiming for approval later on, or specialised vocational courses that have come to be known by the English term of masters. This sector has mushroomed in recent years and has become a lucrative source of income for many institutions; fees for masters are typically E4,800-6,010 (£2,890-3,630) a year.
However, with no regulation, quality is uneven. "There is a lot of difference between a masters at one university and one at another so it is a good idea to accredit them as soon as possible", Professor Michavila said.
The new agency will look at course content, the track record of lecturers, facilities and student pass rates, as well as questionnaires from students, academics and administrative staff. Courses that fail to make the necessary improvements could be closed down. Accreditation will take place every ten years, a "reasonable" cycle according to Professor Michavila, who said that too frequent assessment could "make people feel that everything is constantly changing so it is not worth making the effort".
While a few institutions, such as the Netherland's University of Delft, are already experimenting with accreditation, this would be the first time it has been applied nationally in Europe, he said.
It is the first sign that the recommendations of the Bricall report are being taken on board. The report, known as the Spanish Dearing, was published in March 2000 and Professor Michavila wrote the chapter on evaluation and accreditation.
The consultative Universities' Council has commissioned a study, ending in May 2001. If approved by government, the scheme could be up and running by 2002.