Quality chiefs have been forced into a rethink of the quality assurance framework as vice-chancellors and funding chiefs remain to be convinced that the system will deliver the promised "lighter touch".
The Quality Assurance Agency has informally agreed to examine plans to assess the quality of university departments by sampling, periodically dipping in and out of departments to form an overall judgement.
This radical departure from the system that the QAA has spent the past three years developing, and that is being rolled out now, has come after repeated concerns that the agency is not yet able to reduce significantly the bureaucratic and financial burden.
The lighter touch was designed to cut these burdens by working more closely with internal quality assurance systems and varying the intensity of scrutiny based on an institution's perceived risk and past record. However, it was always designed to review teaching quality in all departments.
Patricia Ambrose, chief executive of the Standing Conference of Principals, said that there was still some scepticism about whether the QAA could deliver on its promise and that early stage talks had begun to develop the sampling idea.
Stephen Marsten, director of institutions at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said: "We have always wanted the new framework to deliver a lighter touch, and we continue to work with the QAA to ensure that a lighter touch can be delivered."
The funding council is negotiating its contract with the QAA, and it is understood that guarantees over the lighter touch will form a key element.
• The High Court will hear today that the university visitorial system is a breach of human rights laws.
Education lawyer Jaswinder Gill will claim that it breaches article six of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees everyone the right to a fair hearing. He will argue that the visitor, usually a senior bishop or aristocrat, does not provide natural justice.
Mr Gill is representing a student at King's College, London, who, it is understood, was expelled from King's after internal disciplinary action.
Earlier, the court rejected a judicial review application by the student on the grounds that the case had not been heard by King's visitor, the archbishop of Canterbury. Mr Gill's request for an oral hearing, to ask the courts to reconsider, was accepted.
One of Mr Gill's key points is that the student complaints system is variable across the country, creating unequal access to justice.