Top universities and the union that represents most of their lecturers want the Quality Assurance Agency's powers curtailed amid fears it wishes to re-introduce subject-level inspections by stealth.
Plans for a new quality assurance system that would introduce an institution-wide, audit-based approach to external scrutiny, all but abolishing subject-level inspection, are out for consultation.
But the Russell Group of leading research universities and the Association of University Teachers fear the QAA and funding council consultation document allows the QAA too much discretion, which means subject review could be introduced by the back door.
A confidential Russell Group document written for funding and quality chiefs says: "The role of the QAA should be reformulated; it should simply administer the process of institutional review."
An AUT document, outlining its approach to future quality assurance, says:
"The QAA should be reconstituted with the coordination and overseeing of institutional audit as its sole function."
Both documents echo quality assurance experts' concern that the QAA is trying, in the face of opposition from the sector and funding chiefs, to maintain a strong external presence at subject level, despite a number of concessions.
The QAA consultation document's proposals make clear that "it is no longer necessary to maintain comprehensive external review at subject level" and that a periodic audit of a university's institution-wide internal quality assurance systems will be enough. But, the document also says that some subject-level inspection will be maintained.
Under the plans, reviews at subject level would take place where audits have raised areas of concern. The audit team would identify concerns as a basis for a programme of subsequent review. It would also review a high proportion of subjects separately if an institution's internal quality-assurance mechanisms were found to be unreliable and its track record weak.
It is anticipated that the best performing universities would have a "sample" of only about 10 per cent of their provision inspected at subject level, while the poorer performers would have almost universal review. Overall, it is anticipated that there will be a reduction of about 50 per cent compared with current levels of subject-level inspection.
Others in the higher education sector are also worried.
Simeon Underwood, assistant registrar at the London School of Economics, said: "It is very important that there should be close monitoring by all parties of the decisions the agency is making and that institutions should have a proper route for appeal."
* The AUT has warned that the external examining system is being undermined by a lack of resources and demands on staff time.
"It is difficult now to persuade staff with the appropriate experience and academic standing to devote time to external examining," the AUT says in a discussion paper.