Implementation of the new quality assurance framework could be illegal, with some university departments escaping scrutiny for up to 13 years.
The Quality Assurance Agency's timetable for implementing the framework may leave the Higher Education Funding Council for England open to legal challenge. Hefce has a duty under the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act to ensure that there is provision for the assessment of quality in the universities it funds.
The funding councils have contracted the QAA to meet this requirement, but experts believe gaps of up to 13 years in the timetable for England may not be satisfactory. The issue has been raised privately by the Welsh heads of higher education, who argue that such long delays in England vindicate their decision to delay implementation of the regime.
An education law specialist said: "Such a delay could clearly be interpreted as a breach of the legal duty. But it is a problem with quangos that they are in a legal hinterland." He said the delays were most likely to be used as ammunition for a student seeking to take an individual university to court.
Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute and former head of the Higher Education Quality Council, said the delays showed the system was a farce. "We are told the justification for the new system is to provide up-to-date, reliable information for students and employers."
The delay is in the 14 subject areas inspected in the early years of the current eight-year assessment cycle that began in 1993 - 13 of these will not be looked at again until 2002 at the earliest, when the cycle of subject reviews under the new framework begins.
Because of the QAA's efforts to group subject areas, chemistry and music - which have not been inspected since 1993-94 - will have to wait until the latter half of the new cycle, 2003-06, before they are assessed again.
Simeon Underwood, head of the professional courses unit at the University of Lancaster, said that even reports that were already several years old were "a dangerous source of potential misinformation".
The QAA and Hefce said they had tried to ensure that all subjects inspected in the early 1990s were included in the early part of the new cycle. "But that rule cannot be immutable," said Hefce, "and the QAA has taken account of the desirability of grouping cognate subjects together."
The QAA said questions over the legality of the delays "were for Hefce". The funding council said it was confident it would be discharging its legal duty, as there was no legislative requirement for a set timetable, and that the transition period was reasonable.
Letters, page 15