Cabinet Office enforcers are likely to recommend sweeping reforms of the way universities are regulated. The Better Regulation Task Force is to investigate the cost and effectiveness of the mechanisms holding universities accountable, from the Quality Assurance Agency to the research assessment exercise.
Reformers say big changes are inevitable because the system fails to meet the group's "principles of good regulation".
The task force will meet soon to frame key questions. It will then hold meetings with stakeholders, which are likely to include vice-chancellors, union leaders, the QAA and the Department for Education and Skills. A report is expected within six months.
It was set up in 1997 to "advise government on action which improves the effectiveness and credibility of regulation by ensuring that it is necessary, fair and affordable, and simple to understand and administer". Its five principles are transparency, accountability, proportionality, consistency and targeting.
Lobbying for a review was led by David Triesman, former general secretary of the Association of University Teachers who was a task force member until last month when he was appointed general secretary of the Labour Party. He argued that that the quality assurance regime in particular fell foul of virtually all of the group's principles.
Andrew Pakes, AUT director of communications, said: "We have suffered from regulation by initiative. The QAA has been given more powers and has imposed more rules. We have audit, inspections, league tables and the RAE. The burden of regulation has become bigger than the sum of its parts."
Research by PA Consulting for the Higher Education Funding Council for England found that universities spent about £250 million a year (4 per cent of their public income) on meeting accountability requirements. It criticised overlap between different accountability mechanisms.
The government must by law give a detailed response to task-force recommendations within 60 days of publication.