Universities will have to take full responsibility for the quality of their students' work placements or study-abroad programmes under a new list of rules from the Quality Assurance Agency.
The QAA this week published a code of practice designed to ensure that all student placements have explicit "learning outcomes" and "provide appropriate learning opportunities".
The code makes clear for the first time: "The responsibility for ensuring that a placement provides adequate opportunities for the intended learning outcomes to be achieved rests with the higher education institution."
It applies to work placements that students themselves negotiate, foreign language study-abroad programmes in other universities and formal industrial or clinical placements.
The new rules, part of almost 200 forming an overarching code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards, are not supposed to be prescriptive. But institutions will be judged on their adherence to the rules during the QAA's new-style audits of their internal quality control mechanisms.
The code says that universities must secure adequate commitments from placement providers. In cases where large-scale placements are agreed with a single employer, the university should normally enter into a written agreement.
Where students find their own placements, placement providers should be formally asked to confirm they are able to provide the student with the specified appropriate learning opportunities.
The code demands that students are fully aware of their rights and responsibilities. It gives them access to clear mechanisms for complaining about placements.
Although the QAA has watered down the code from the first draft, there are concerns that it will be unenforceable and could damage universities relationships with external partners.
Geoffrey Alderman, director at Touro College in New York and a former QAA inspector, said that institutions should ensure placements were fit. "But an HEI cannot take responsibility away from another university - say abroad. I can foresee a backlash from potential placements unwilling to comply with the code," he said.
Susan Bassnett, pro vice-chancellor of Warwick University, used the draft code as an example of the QAA's failure to consult the sector in a wide-ranging critique of the agency earlier this year. She said the draft code had the potential to "jeopardise the entire UK system of foreign language exchange programmes".
John Randall, chief executive of the QAA, said he hoped the code would "help universities and colleges, employers and other placement providers to ensure that students get maximum benefit from opportunities to learn away from the classroom".