A GROWING band of top universities is testing the authority of higher education's standards watchdog by closing its doors to auditors.
Oxford, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle universities have joined Cambridge in challenging the power and influence of the Quality Assurance Agency.
They have said "no" to a QAA request for them to invite auditors in to scrutinise their arrangements for maintaining quality and standards.
Their stand is a threat to the QAA's efforts to secure an agreement between institutions and funding bodies over its plans for a new quality assurance regime, which includes an audit element.
It also raises questions over the QAA's ability to exert peer pressure on institutions to conform to quality tests, which ministers and funding council chiefs have deemed essential to protect public spending.
The rebel institutions - which were last audited in 1992 - say the details of the QAA's quality assurance plans are too uncertain for them to sign up to a visit in 2000.
The agency has gone back to the drawing board after failing to broker a compromise between institutions' representative bodies and funding councils at a "sounding board" meeting this week.
Cambridge University, which started the anti-audit rebellion early this year, has signalled that it is even prepared to face up to government reserve powers in its defiance of the QAA.
Graeme Rennie, the university's principal assistant registrar with responsibility for quality assurance, said: "We have heard talk in the past of ministers using reserve powers to enforce audit, but we are not particularly intimidated by that."
"Ministers effectively surrendered reserve powers with the creation of the QAA," said one quality expert. They then made the agency "toothless" by agreeing with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and funding councils that sticking to QAA rules should not be a condition of funding.
Mr Rennie said claims by the QAA that Cambridge had agreed to have its audit postponed were incorrect. It had said no to audit altogether, he said.
Both Sir Stewart Sutherland, vice-chancellor of Edinburgh University and a former champion of quality audit, and Sir Graeme Davies, vice-chancellor of Glasgow University, have rejected a QAA invitation to have audits postponed rather than cancelled.
Ron Emanuel, director of quality assurance at Glasgow, said: "At the moment we do not see where audit fits in to the QAA's new system, and we think we have a good enough track record for audit to be unnecessary."
Oxford University has also rejected audit and a proposed new standards framework as "irrelevant" on the grounds of its "excellent record of results" in teaching quality assessments. Newcastle has said it will meet with the QAA next year to reconsider its position.
A QAA spokesman said talks were continuing. "We are not in the business of flexing muscles," he said.