UK universities would be able to opt out of the Quality Assurance Agency's audit scheme under a European Commission plan.
A draft recommendation on quality assurance published by the Commission last month would ensure that universities could choose an accreditation agency that best "meets their needs" from an approved Europe-wide directory.
The move was cautiously welcomed this week, with one vice-chancellor saying a free market among quality bodies would cut red tape and unnecessary interference, and make the QAA more sympathetic to universities' needs.
The proposal, which needs the approval of the European Parliament, builds on a 1998 agreement to move towards the "mutual recognition of quality assurance systems across Europe".
The draft outlines five steps towards achieving "mutual recognition" of quality assurance agencies. These include quality assurance bodies across member states agreeing a set of standards and guidelines, and setting up a European register of quality assurance and accreditation agencies.
Universities should be able "to choose... an agency that meets their needs and profile", says the proposal, adding: "They may opt for regional, national or international accreditation."
Kel Fidler, vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, said he would welcome the opportunity to "shop around". "Something to cut down on the bureaucracy, but operate to acceptable standards would always be welcome - and competition (between agencies) should ensure that," he said.
Geoffrey Alderman, academic dean of the private American InterContinental University in London and a vocal critic of the QAA, said: "This report is good news. Why should one accrediting body enjoy a monopoly?"
Peter Williams, QAA chief executive, was unavailable for comment, but the agency is understood to see itself as best placed to benefit from a free market.