The Quality Assurance Agency has been forced to take its blueprint for a national qualifications framework back to the drawing board after overwhelming protests.
A chorus of disapproval has persuaded the agency to rethink its framework for the hierarchy and nomenclature of all higher education awards. A board meeting early next month was supposed to ratify the final framework. Now it will simply set out the agency's "views on the way forward".
The offending blueprint, published earlier this year, set four levels for undergraduate qualifications, with a higher education certificate on the bottom rung, an HND at level two, an ordinary degree and the new foundation degree at level three and a full honours degree at level four.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said it had been "unable to discover any support in the sector for the proposed four-level undergraduate hierarchy" and that the plans were ominously close to the "straitjacket the QAA expressly wishes to avoid".
The Standing Conference of Principals, the Council of Validating Universities and members of the foundation degree design group also attacked the plan.
Most universities work to a three-level model: HNCs at level one, HNDs and foundation degrees at level two and degrees at level three. Opponents of the framework said it defeated the point of the foundation degree to put it on a par with an ordinary degree.
Employers and professional bodies still favour four levels. A QAA spokesman said: "The agency is examining ways of accommodating the underlying objectives of employers within a structure with which institutions are comfortable."
The CVCP is calling for more consultation and a longer implementation period, but the QAA is working to a tight timetable, with plans to publish an agreed framework next month.
The qualifications framework is a key part of the QAA's blueprint for a new quality assurance regime, which will begin roll-out in England next year. Teams of QAA "academic reviewers" are expected to audit institutions' quality assurance systems against the levels set out in the qualifications framework.
The QAA said that changes to the undergraduate levels would not undermine the framework in general. "The number of qualifications covered by the levels below the honours degree is relatively small," said a spokesman. "The majority of qualifications awarded are at honours degree and postgraduate levels. There is clear support for setting high and rigorous standards for these qualifications, not least to ensure that UK degrees continue to command respect in the competitive global market for higher education."