Quality chiefs are set for a show-down with the British funding councils over final plans for the new quality assurance regime. Public accountability appears to be at the heart of the disagreement.
The Quality Assurance Agency needs the full backing of the English, Welsh and Scottish higher education funding councils before it can go ahead with its new integrated regime for assessing teaching quality and auditing institutions' quality management. But the QAA has warned: "There is still further work to do before final agreement is reached between the funding councils and the agency."
The QAA has confirmed that there are still details to be "thrashed out" over plans to vary the intensity of scrutiny according to institutions' past records, but a key sticking point is understood to be the future system for reporting the results of institutions' teaching quality assessments. Under the current system, departments are given numerical ratings for each of six inspection areas. These are commonly aggregated to give a mark out of 24, against the advice of the QAA, and used in controversial league tables.
Under the new system, the QAA, which is a company limited by guarantee with a majority of university representatives on its board, is determined to abolish numerical gradings for standards and to replace them with "narrative descriptions" only.
But the funding councils, which have statutory responsibility for seeing that the quality of the provision they fund is adequately monitored, appear to be uneasy about the implications for public accountability and transparency.
"It is highly desirable that the QAA assessments should include summative quantified ratings as well as narrative descriptions of strengths and weaknesses," the funding councils said in their joint response to the QAA's blueprint.
John Andrews, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, this week said that issues still needed to be "teased through".
He said: "There is an enthusiasm from government to see the development of a range of performance indicators. It is possible we can use numbers in particular areas to provide feedback, but when it comes out as league tables, there are problems."
The QAA said that its plans remain "on schedule".
The agency will be seeking full backing for its plans during a crunch meeting on July 21, and it hopes to publish final details in September.