The cost of red-tape and regulation has been cut by 25 per cent in four years, according to a new report revealed exclusively in today's Times Higher .
But a "conservative estimate" from a study for the Higher Education Funding Council for England still puts the bill for accountability at £211 million a year.
Reform of bureaucratic teaching quality assessments has helped cut red tape since 2000 but the report says that while this had reduced the external impact on institutions, the burden on staff internally remained pretty much unchanged.
Responding to continued concerns about the regulatory burden, Alan Johnson, the Higher Education Minister, this week raised the prospect of a sweeping review of the entire accountability framework following the introduction of top-up fees in 2006.
Mr Johnson also announced a new Higher Education Regulation Review Group, as recommended by the Better Regulation Review Group, led by David VandeLinde, vice-chancellor of Warwick University.
The report, produced for Hefce by PA Consulting, says: "Whilst this represents a significant and welcome improvement, a total cost equivalent to the annual income of two large universities is clearly a cause for continued concern."
The report, Better Accountability Revisited , updates a 2000 report which shocked the sector with its finding that accountability was costing higher education £250 million a year - equivalent to £280 million at today's prices.
The new report finds that the cost of external accountability across all higher education institutions in 2004 is about £211 million. But, adjusting for inflation, this would amount to £188 million in 2000 prices.
Mr Johnson welcomed the report, pointing out that the proportion of Hefce funding that universities spend on meeting external regulation is now estimated at 3.5 per cent, compared with 6.3 per cent four years ago.
"This is a real achievement and a testament to the hard work of many people in finding better ways of ensuring legitimate accountability demands are met," he said.
But PA Consulting reported that it was "disconcerted" to find that while the overall burden had fallen, a number of new accountability requirements had been imposed on higher education institutions since its first review.
It said that universities that took part in the study were particularly concerned about the bureaucratic implications of a new Office for Fair Access, also proposed in the White Paper and now part of the Higher Education Bill.
PA also warned that major reform of the Quality Assurance Agency's regime - moving from a system of universal teaching inspection to a six-yearly cycle of audit - had largely been in vain.
It said that while the new QAA institutional audits reduced the burden on institutions, the effort required internally to keep the agency at bay was just about the same.
"The total effort on teaching quality management required to satisfy the expectations of external reviewers was no less than before. It has merely been internalised," the report said.
The new regulation review group is to be chaired by Dame Patricia Hodgson and will for the first time "introduce a stage of informed scrutiny into the policy making process". It will work with Whitehall departments to run a red-tape check over all Government policy initiatives relating to higher education.