John Randall's resignation has sparked a backlash from students, employers and politicians against universities' plans for a light-touch quality assurance regime.
While lecturers' leaders rejoiced at Tuesday's news that Mr Randall had quit as chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, Mr Randall and his supporters warned that universities were winning too many concessions in their war against prescriptive regulation.
He said the current consultative plans for light-touch quality assurance - which all but abolish subject-level inspections in favour of a hands-off audit approach - would short-change students and employers and hurt public confidence in university standards. His resignation has prompted speculation that universities might not yet have won the war against interventionist inspection - especially as ministers are insisting that consumers get robust quality information.
But in an interview with The THES , Mr Randall said that his exit could smooth the path to the lighter quality assurance regime he has been resisting. He also hinted that his departure was as much a result of his being pushed as of his jumping.
His position has been shaky since he was forced in March by David Blunkett, then education secretary, to all but tear up the plan he had spent five years developing. Vice-chancellors and lecturers' leaders had convinced Mr Blunkett that the plan would do little to reduce multimillion-pound inspection burdens.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England and the institutions represented by Universities UK, which fund the QAA, forced Mr Randall into publishing a greatly watered-down blueprint for consultation last month. This week, Mr Randall said the proposals were too feeble to uphold standards: "I believe the model that is the subject of consultation requires strengthening so as to serve better the interests of the users of higher education. Given my reservations, it is better that I do not lead this development work."
Mr Randall told The THES that he hoped his resignation would help ensure that consumers' demands for a more robust system would be heard in the consultation but conceded that it might have the opposite effect.
Asked if he jumped or if he was pushed out, Mr Randall said: "When the two biggest funders of the agency (UUK and Hefce) are going in a direction that is different from the one I would take, clearly it does become a difficult position. You can see the difficulty of holding the views that I do and taking the leading role in shaping the way forward."
Many in the sector support Mr Randall's concerns and hope that his exit may help secure tougher proposals. Owain James, president of the National Union of Students, said: "Students need to feel absolutely confident that there are effective quality assurance procedures in place. This can only be achieved by a rigorous inspection regime."
Carl Gilliard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, said university expansion had made it crucial that there be high public confidence in university standards.
Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman David Rendell said: "When universities try to minimise outside scrutiny, you have to wonder what they are afraid of."
A Department of Education and Skills spokesman said: "The government is concerned to ensure that the interests of consumers are properly protected and will look carefully at the outcome of that process."
Others made clear their desire to proceed with the consultation on light-touch inspections. The Association of University Teachers said: "John Randall's resignation marks the end of overly bureaucratic and prescriptive regulation in higher education."
UUK, Hefce and the QAA reiterated their confidence in the consultative proposals. Diana Warwick, chief executive of UUK, said: "Universities UK will continue wholeheartedly to support the current proposals to produce a rigorous but more cost-effective model for quality assurance."
Mr Randall will be replaced from September 1 by Peter Williams, the director of institutional review, who has been confirmed as acting chief executive. Mr Williams said the consultative proposals "hinge on the ability of institutions to demonstrate quite clearly that they are able to produce valid and reliable and accessible information for the public".