Universities must not use the Government's drive for more employers' input into degree courses "to cloak an inferior offering", the head of the Quality Assurance Agency has warned.
The quality body has issued a statement setting out guidance on standards for work-based learning, which is high on the Government's agenda for higher education.
In the QAA's latest newsletter, Peter Williams, the organisation's chief executive, writes that the idea that universities should have close relationships with those who employ their graduates is as old as universities themselves. However, he says, some view this as "a rather frightening abyss promising danger and risk, to be avoided if at all possible".
The QAA's view, he writes, is that nothing in its code of practice or other work restricts universities from pursuing links with employers. Mr Williams says that this position will be endorsed by a forthcoming report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
He says that it would be false to think that the QAA sees employer engagement as "unacceptably risky" and adds that his organisation welcomes opportunities "to extend the reach of higher education, provided what is described as higher education is really higher education".
"The external credibility of qualifications and their portability is vital for all students; 'employer engagement' must not be used to cloak an inferior offering. That accepted, the opportunities are there to be taken."
In its statement, the QAA says qualifications must meet national standards, but universities must avoid "overelaborate" quality assurance procedures.
Roger Brown, former head of the QAA's predecessor, the Higher Education Quality Council, said the statement was timely. "Employer engagement is a challenging and complex area for quality assurance, particularly when it comes to such issues as the comparability and portability of qualifications."
Alice Hynes, chief executive of GuildHE, which represents a group of higher education colleges and universities, said: "We know we can trust our present quality controls and we can find equally good adaptations for the future, but the challenge is to meet the employers' demands for speed and responsiveness and still ensure due process that meets the precepts in QAA's Academic Infrastructure (which sets out academic standards)."
- Anglia Ruskin University and Harper Adams University College have won £11 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to develop work-based learning and continuing professional development courses for business.
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