Plans for a code of practice on student complaints face collapse following a rebellion by the student union leaders helping to draft the document.
The postgraduate representative on the Quality Assurance Agency's working group on the code claims the original proposals have been "watered down the drain" and that "intractable differences" are threatening to break up the group.
Don Staniford, who represents the National Postgraduate Committee on the working group, said after a meeting last week: "I do not want to be associated with a code that has more to do with kowtowing to the university sector than upholding the principles of natural justice, independence and transparency. The entire QAA code is in danger of going down the drain."
He said that the agency had "copped out" of being tough with the university sector and had bowed too easily to universities' pleas for institutional autonomy.
The Dearing report in July 1997 said that the agency should develop "fair and robust" procedures for student complaints and appeals by next month.
The QAA, lacking direct interventionist powers, has been preparing a code of practice against which institutions will be judged by its inspectors.
But deep-seated disagreements mean the code is unlikely to be ready until December at the earliest, and ministers are becoming increasingly impatient with institutions that are failing to introduce proper procedures.
One of the stumbling blocks is Dearing's demand for an "independent, external element" in the procedures, which the QAA had included in its draft code, but which has been strongly criticised by universities.
John Baldwin, registrar at Wolverhampton University, said that the "issue of independent review, as articulated in (the QAA's) paper, is unworkable and will simply prejudice the goodwill you are endeavouring to generate".
Nick Andrew, registrar at Bradford University, said it was "inconceivable" that external review was "the way forward".
But the students on the working group were adamant that a strong independent element was essential. Mr Staniford said: "The QAA is running scared and has fudged the issue of independent external review altogether."
There were also major disagreements over freedom of information. It is understood that the draft document has been watered down to allow institutions more discretion over the release of data to student complainants. But universities officials say that the code appears over-prescriptive.
In his submission to the group, Steve Bennet, company secretary of Anglia Polytechnic University. said: "Great play is made of the fact that the code is intended to be non-prescriptive. However, as one reads further into the proposed manner of testing performance against the code and, indeed, when one considers the detail of the precepts it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the document is a prescription."