Quality chiefs plan to "kitemark" British universities' overseas courses, after a string of quality control and mismanagement scandals.
The Quality Assurance Agency has long let it be known that scandals in which United Kingdom universities have been caught offering sub-standard courses abroad had damaged the UK's international reputation for quality and could affect overseas student recruitment.
The QAA wants to expand its current overseas quality audits to include a kitemarking scheme.
In its annual progress report to the UK funding councils, for which the QAA works under contract, the agency confirmed that a kitemarking scheme is a "possible area of future development" and that it will take "informal soundings" on the idea.
Plans are sketchy - little formal work has been done to develop the idea - but it is thought the move could fit in with the government's overseas branding initiative: a British Council-run plan to sell UK higher education abroad to attract tens of thousands of additional fee-paying students.
The QAA believes the UK has a unique selling point that gives it an edge in the international market, which would be enhanced by kitemarking. The agency already conducts quality audits of overseas collaborations.
"The UK is one of the very few countries to accept responsibility for the quality and standards of the academic programmes it exports for delivery through overseas partners," said QAA chief executive John Randall in the latest annual report.
Any kitemarking scheme would involve a dramatic increase in the agency's overseas work. Currently it samples provision and draws generic conclusions.
But some international educationists were sceptical. Geoffrey Alderman, vice-president of Touro College in New York and former pro vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, said he did not believe a QAA kitemark would hold any value. "I can't imagine a kitemark from the QAA would carry a great deal of weight," he said. "And we do not need their permission to run overseas courses. There are already a number of international players offering kitemarks. MBA programmes are the most popular overseas courses, and any reputable institution is already accredited by Amba (the Association of MBAs), for example."
The marketing of the UK abroad has been hindered by some high-profile quality control scandals: problems with overseas franchises have beset Hull University, which pulled out of a South African deal last year after a critical QAA report; Derby's operations in Israel have been criticised; and the Southampton Institute was criticised by the National Audit Office in 1998.
The QAA declined to discuss its plans further.