The Quality Assurance Agency has side-stepped questions over its power to police standards. It has declined to say how it will deal with institutions that refuse to take part in quality checks, in the face of four top universities saying they do not want to let QAA auditors in.
The agency is trying to persuade Cambridge, Edinburgh and Glasgow universities to change their minds over audits scheduled for 2000. Oxford, which is yet to receive an audit date, has also indicated its reluctance to take part.
Legal experts pointed to reserve powers in the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act that could allow ministers to step in to enforce quality checks if necessary. The act permits the funding councils to step in if the QAA is seen not to be doing its job.
But John Randall, QAA chief executive, said he did not want to "place an interpretation" on these provisions while discussions were under way with institutions about scheduled audits.
Audits, known as "institutional reviews" under the QAA's proposed new quality assurance system, still play a key role in the latest plans drafted by the agency.
A confidential document outlining details of a third revision of the agency's proposals says institutional reviews could be used to "sample" institutions' internal systems for checking the quality of teaching and learning.
This sampling would be crucial for there to be confidence in a system that would offer a "lighter touch" in quality checks for institutions with a good record.
The document proposes that institutional review would be one of three layers of quality assurance.
External examiners with a wider and more explicit role in checking standards would provide the first layer. Their duties would include verifying assessments and award and degree-classification decisions.
The next layer would be academic reviewers, who would report to the QAA on whether course objectives set by institutions were being met and on the effectiveness of the design, content and organisation of the curriculum. Reviewers would be practising academics or experienced external practitioners with subject expertise.
Each institution will be asked to devise its own quality review programme. Reports of academic reviewers would be published by the agency.