Critics fear that watchdogs will strike secret deals with elite universities that will invalidate reports under the new quality framework.
Variations in the "intensity of scrutiny" of inspections form a key part of the Quality Assurance Agency's plans to reduce the bureaucratic burden of its new framework. The agency says resources will be concentrated on institutions that officials deem to be high risk while the best universities are left with a "light touch".
But critics say this process is unaccountable, the criteria for establishing the "light touch" are flawed, and the new system is open to abuse, with too much room for patronage and too much power to the agency officials. It will also make genuine comparisons between institutions impossible, they claim.
The QAA intends to use previously published subject review reports, institutional audit reports and "other relevant available information" to establish how much scrutiny an institution should be subject to. Before the new system rolls out from 2001 in England, the QAA will prepare an initial profile of each university.
The profile, which "will be shared with the institution concerned, but not published", will form the basis of bilateral discussions with individual universities about how much scrutiny they will be subject to.
"In the absence of agreement on the intensity of review that is appropriate, the decision of the agency will be final," the QAA said. Intensity will be defined by the number of days the QAA's academic reviewers spend in each institution.
Southampton Institute principal Roger Brown said: "Judgements (on the intensity of scrutiny) will be made by agency officials against criteria that are not yet clear, using reports that were written for a different purpose, which are at best historical, and many of which anyway fail basic tests of validity and reliability."
Dr Brown, who was chief executive of the QAA's predecessor, the Higher Education Quality Council, also warns that the variations of intensity are incompatible with the QAA's claims that the new system will produce consistent and reliable judgements.
Geoffrey Alderman, visiting professor at Middlesex University, said there is a major "shift of power to the QAA bureaucracy". "The criteria must be absolutely transparent to prevent any suspicion of favouritism or elitism," he said.
Simeon Underwood, head of the professional courses unit at the University of Lancaster, said: "There is still widespread uncertainty as to how the intensity will be determined and what it will mean in practice."