Quality chiefs have called for unprecedented powers to remove universities' rights to award degrees.
The controversial proposal by the Quality Assurance Agency, which underpins its plans to establish greater control over the granting of degree-awarding powers, is being considered by ministers. The agency also wants to erect a series of new hurdles that institutions must clear in order to earn university status.
The call to ministers to empower the agency to remove institutions' historically irrevocable degree-awarding powers follows difficulties at Thames Valley University. The QAA made little secret of its frustration at being unable to remove the university's right to award degrees, despite a series of quality control problems.
"If it can be demonstrated that an institution has seriously abused its powers to award degrees, then its right to do so in perpetuity should be removed," said Chris Haslam, assistant director at the QAA. "It is an issue we have flagged to ministers and it is up to them to decide."
The move would require primary legislation - for both Royal Charter universities and new universities - and will be discussed at a meeting between the QAA and ministers in April. A decision is expected this summer.
The QAA has also put to ministers a series of proposals to make it more difficult for institutions to gain degree-awarding powers and to achieve university status.
The QAA wants to make institutions apply separately for degree-awarding powers at undergraduate and postgraduate level.
"In the agency's view," Dr Haslam said, "education at postgraduate level is very different than the undergraduate experience. And we are taking that forward."
But the plans have already provoked opposition. Patricia Ambrose, executive secretary of the Standing Conference of Principals, said the strategy is designed to "close off options" for SCOP institutions.
The plans would mean that colleges would have to clear two hurdles instead of one to gain a university college title. Three hurdles - gaining undergraduate powers, taught postgraduate powers, and research degree-awarding powers - would be placed in front of institutions aspiring to full university status.
Dr Haslam refuted claims that the QAA's stance conflicted with the government's aim of mass expansion in higher education.
"It is not a prerequisite that a higher education institution wishing to engage in higher education has to have taught degree-awarding powers," he said. "Many can offer higher education validated by another institution. Politics is not a matter for us. The agency will look at each individual case impartially."