Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, claimed in a lecture this week that the introduction of differentiated fee levels next year would inevitably result in a two-tier system of quality assurance, in which auditors were forced to assess some institutions' academic procedures in light of their limited funding.
This regulatory model would undermine the existing practice of the Quality Assurance Agency, he said, which judges all institutions against the same criteria. Such "resource blindness" would become "very difficult, if not impossible, in future", he told an audience at the University of West London on 14 December.
"Will it really be credible to continue to apply the same criteria to, say, Cambridge and Derby or to Birmingham and Birmingham City?" he asked. "How long will it be before the Russell Group establishes its own system of external examiners or moderators?"
The creation of cheaper, "no-frills" honours programmes within universities, such as the £4,800-a-year courses offered by Coventry University through a subsidiary college, could also mean that auditors would have to apply different standards during inspections.
"We have always had this issue with degrees run through further education colleges, but you will have the same issue within individual institutions," Professor Brown told Times Higher Education.
Fee-conscious treatment of universities threatened to unravel the "coherent" national policy of quality assurance, thereby damaging the reputation of a British degree internationally. "How can you have common standards in a differentiated system?" he said.
A QAA spokesman said it would continue to "apply the same expectations of threshold standards, quality of learning opportunities and information to every provider of UK higher education".
"Students on UK higher education programmes have the right to a quality learning experience, no matter where they study or how much they pay in fees," he added.
Meanwhile, the QAA this week launched its UK Quality Code for Higher Education, which clarifies what is "expected" of all UK higher education providers.
The Quality Code replaces the Academic Infrastructure document that offers "reference points" to guide institutions towards good practice. Chapters on student engagement, collaborative provision and learning and teaching will be published throughout 2012.