Quality inspectors will give every university a ranking based on their stewardship of academic standards and course quality, according to latest confidential plans for a new quality assurance regime.
A leaked paper from the Quality Assurance Agency reveals plans to rank universities on a scale of "several" hierarchical levels, from excellence to failure.
The paper, written by acting chief executive Peter Williams, suggests publishing future overall judgements of universities based on the level of confidence that QAA inspectors have in an institution's ability to maintain the academic standards of courses and to manage their own quality assurance.
"The precise form of the judgements will allow several overall degrees of confidence to be expressed," it says.
As examples, it suggests terms such as "broad confidence", "limited confidence" and "little confidence". It is thought the scale could also include "no confidence" and some measure of excellence, thought unlikely to be "total confidence".
The scale is believed to be back on the agenda at the behest of funding chiefs.
Mr Williams's paper is based on the joint paper from the QAA, vice-chancellors and the funding council that has been out for consultation over the summer.
The QAA stressed that it was a "preliminary description of a possible operational model" for the new quality system, planned for September next year, which will slash the amount of subject-level inspection in favour of an institution-wide audit approach.
Audits could take just four days with auditors arriving on a Monday and leaving by Thursday, thus reducing the number of "reviewer days" spent on each university by almost 90 per cent.
Mr Williams's draft paper accepts that moving towards institution-wide audits could make it difficult to produce sector-wide information for use in subject overview reports and for other comparative purposes.
It says: "But this price might be considered worth paying if the information available to students and others was in consequence more relevant to their needs and reduced the chance of false comparisons being made."
The paper, written just before consultation closed last month, provoked immediate criticism from Geoffrey Alderman, a former QAA auditor and international expert on university regulation.
He said: "We are back to league tables and the sector will not be happy about this. It would be funny if it wasn't so tragic."