Quality chiefs have set out to reassure universities and colleges that they are not planning a national curriculum for higher education.
Proposed new subject benchmarks setting a "threshold" standard below which no provision should fall "must not become a backdoor attempt to introduce some form of national curriculum", John Randall, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, told delegates at a national conference in Glasgow this week.
Standards must be "owned" by the academic community, and "must not degenerate into recommended lists of syllabus content", he told the conference, organised to launch the QAA's proposed new quality assurance system.
Mr Randall said the standards, to be piloted initially in Wales and Scotland in history, chemistry and law, should not define course content but rather "the intellectual attributes that ought to be developed by study in a given discipline to degree level".
Common factors that can be identified from the subject standards will enable the QAA to develop descriptions of levels within a new national qualifications framework, he said. The most crucial of these will be for the honours degree, which will be the point of reference for levels above and below.
Mr Randall's comments appeared to be designed to address concerns raised in recently published papers written by Roger Brown, Southampton Institute principal and former chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council.
In a paper published in the journal Quality in Higher Education, Dr Brown questioned whether the QAA will have the powers to secure adherence to the proposed system.
"If individual institutions are unwilling to bring their awards or programmes into line with the agency's requirements then, under the existing legislative framework, there are only two possible sanctions: peer pressure by the academic community collectively or withdrawal of funding by the funding council."
The former might not prove effective, while the latter "seems questionable" and might be held to be ultra vires, he said.