University inspections must assure the public that "threshold standards" are being met rather than simply checking processes, the bodies that represent and fund them have agreed.
From 2011-12, institutional audits will be more "proactive" and "flexible", allowing the UK's Quality Assurance Agency to respond to areas of public concern. Audits will take place on a rolling basis rather than the current six-year cycle, and "plain English" summaries of their reports will be published.
The terms used to express audit judgements - the QAA currently expresses "confidence", "limited confidence" or "no confidence" in two areas - will also be reviewed.
The steps have been agreed following a consultation on the future of quality assurance in England and Northern Ireland, which received 169 responses.
A letter to the QAA from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Universities UK and other bodies asks the agency to "consider how institutional audit provides public assurance that threshold standards are being met, taking into account the responsibility of institutions for the standards of awards made in their name".
All audits will include a "thematic element" that will consider "wider aspects of challenge" for the sector and there will be a bigger emphasis on public information.
But the consultation document, drawn up last year by Hefce, UUK and GuildHE, was criticised by respondents for "a lack of clarity throughout ... about the term 'threshold standards' and even the term 'standards' itself". At a series of workshops, there was agreement that the audit method would benefit from the increased flexibility of a rolling plan, "as long as this did not mean 'knee-jerk' reactions to media stories or political interference".
There was also agreement that quality assurance needed to be better publicised and explained.
In the words of one delegate: "Everyone has heard of Ofsted, no one has heard of the QAA."