Adopting market-based indicators such as Key Information Sets and student satisfaction scores as a guide to university quality will threaten standards, a scholar has warned.
Roger Brown, co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Development at Liverpool Hope University, argues in a new paper that such an approach would be a poor substitute for existing quality assurance checks conducted by academics.
Moves by the government to create a risk-based quality assurance system, which would exempt well-regarded universities from regular reviews, would also undermine the UK's established method of quality assurance, he claims.
Writing in the latest edition of the journal Quality in Higher Education, Professor Brown says the rise of alternative measurements of quality and changes to assurance practices could cause "the indirect destruction of our painfully acquired, but still largely justified, international reputation for quality".
He told Times Higher Education: "It is the academic community which collectively safeguards standards, but that will change. These (information tables) are all illustrations of market forces supplementing and replacing academic judgements.
"But the only people who can judge and protect academic values are academics. Unless you have an inspector in every classroom there is no other way of doing it. When professional values of quality are devalued, you have a wholesale devaluation of quality."
Professor Brown, a former chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council and former vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University, believes that changes to teaching funding could also threaten quality.
Under the new system, from 2012 some subjects will rely entirely on income from tuition fees, rather than teaching grants from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. However, Hefce will continue to distribute about £2 billion of state funding to subsidise high-cost courses, such as medicine.
"At the moment the vast majority of institutions with degree-awarding powers are Hefce-funded," Professor Brown writes. "This gives the state a lever with which to punish institutions with major quality problems (by withdrawing or threatening to withdraw their funding), although this has never been used."
Unless the government gives itself the means to strip universities of degree-awarding powers, "it is not clear what sanctions will exist to protect what is still a significant amount of public money", he concludes. The battle to secure students and fees income will lead to economic considerations taking priority over academic ones, which "will inevitably increase the risks of quality being compromised for reasons of resourcing or reputation".
Professor Brown's paper, "The new English quality assurance regime", also criticises moves to attract more private higher education providers into the UK market. "What academic conscience will a large multinational for-profit publisher have?" it asks.