A revamp of the "toolkit" for setting academic standards has been unveiled by the quality watchdog, prompting suggestions that it is moving towards a "mandatory code".
The UK Quality Code - which will underpin the work of the Quality Assurance Agency - will clarify what is "expected" of all higher education providers. The current toolkit, the Academic Infrastructure, has "reference points" that provide guidance.
The infrastructure includes qualification frameworks, subject-benchmark statements, programme specifications and the QAA code of practice. It was set up in the 1990s to bolster public confidence in higher education.
It will now be transformed into the UK Quality Code, which will contain three elements: setting and maintaining threshold academic standards; assuring and enhancing academic quality; and providing information about the higher education sector.
Although the code will retain much of the information included in the existing Academic Infrastructure, it will also feature new material to help "address a range of overarching themes that are of particular relevance to students".
Among the issues addressed are students' diverse circumstances, modes of learning and employment needs, as well as their right to information about how their learning is planned, managed and assessed.
According to Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, the use of "expectations" in the language of the code was a signal that the QAA was "edging towards more of a mandatory code".
"It does take us in the obligatory direction, because these are not merely 'reference points' any longer. The question for the QAA is what happens when institutions fail to do what is expected of them," he said.
The unveiling of the code's proposed format follows a consultation with the sector on the plans, which received 139 responses, mainly from institutions but also from individuals and other groups.
Four-fifths of respondents "strongly supported" the revamp, welcoming the code's single point of reference. Of the minority that disagreed, some questioned the need for a restructure given existing financial pressures and queried whether the proposals represented "an intrusion into institutional autonomy".
Following the unveiling of the plans for the format, a steering group will be established to coordinate work on the Quality Code.
The QAA report says that the first parts to be developed will be chapters on maintaining and improving quality in external examining, postgraduate research programmes, student engagement, and learning and teaching.
Also high on the agenda is the development of the section on providing intelligence about higher education, as from September 2012 QAA reviews will include a judgement on the public information that universities provide.