Seeking new customers and offering them new products has become the Holy Grail for managers in higher education, but the policy can expose institutions to unforeseen risks.
A three-year project backed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England is developing advice on how quality management systems can help universities avoid risky behaviour.
Project leader Colin Raban, of Edge Hill College, said universities had entered a period of change accompanied by a fall in the unit of resource. He said the relative value of academic salaries and the status of university teaching had also declined.
"While we struggle to recruit and retain well-qualified staff, we also expect these staff to seek new customers by developing new products and methods of delivery. All this takes place in a world that is dynamic to the point of instability as one policy or funding initiative chases another and as higher education becomes more competitive. But we sometimes compound the risks by the ways in which we deal with these dangers."
Universities faced a variety of risks, Professor Raban said. External forces could compromise the quality and standards of courses. And any failure to invest in new or struggling courses or to support cost-effective quality management could be dangerous.
A new approach was needed because "the habitual, mechanical or ritualistic application of established quality assurance models will not do", Professor Raban said. Hefce had placed a premium on the "robustness and reliability" of internal quality assurance arrangements, he said. But quality assurance procedures that are robust and reliable in one environment might be a liability in another, he added.
The onus was on institutions to develop systems that can ensure quality and uphold standards. "Quality assurance procedures could be so over-weaning and expensive that they put at risk the professional commitment of staff, divert scarce resources from teaching and research and thus undermine the core conditions for quality enhancement," he warned.
The project, whose partners include Durham University, Leeds Metropolitan University and Bath Spa College, will send out a survey next week to all institutions in an attempt to map current risk-based procedures.
Professor Raban said any new approach would need to anticipate potential quality risks rather than merely to note that provision was already "at risk" and would need to find ways of controlling that risk. It would also need to ensure that quality management systems did not themselves place the missions and strategic objectives of institutions at risk.