Some of Britain's most prestigious universities cannot guarantee the quality of their own degrees, the higher education quality watchdog has warned.
Questions have been raised about quality control at the universities of London, Wales, Essex, York, Exeter, Bradford, Southampton and Oxbridge.
Universities are increasingly ducking their fundamental duty as autonomous degree-awarding authorities by failing to take "corporate" responsibility for the quality of their degrees, according to Peter Williams, director of institutional review at the Quality Assurance Agency.
His remarks in an interview with The THES strike at the heart of the debate over institutional autonomy. Some of Britain's most prestigious institutions continue to refuse to be audited by the QAA's team of inspectors. Ministers are considering proposals to give the agency the power to withdraw universities' degree-awarding powers.
Mr Williams warned: "Institutions have got to know for themselves as awarding institutions that they have got everything buttoned down. But there are gaping holes. In some cases, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing."
He said that there was a quite proper "trend" of institutions delegating responsibility for quality assurance "to the level of delivery", to departments, schools and to lecturers. "But if university managers want to delegate, they must recognise that it does not I abrogate responsibility. You must have a means of knowing if you are happy with what is happening in your name."
Mr Williams's comments come in the wake of a number of critical QAA audit reports. At Essex University, auditors found that central quality assurance managers were not "well informed in detail about local practices in departments", and that the university was unable to demonstrate the international excellence that it claimed. At the University of York, senior committee members were unaware of important quality issues "in university papers". At Exeter, departmental autonomy meant there were few "shared and common standards", and at Southampton, the central academic quality committee did not know "the full extent" of the university's overseas activities.
At Bradford, auditors warned: "It is not easy to confirm that an effective system exists ... to enable the institution to satisfy itself about the quality of its provision."
Mr Williams said: "What we are saying is that in delivering a delegated system, some institutions have not got effective ways of spotting unacceptable variations (between practice in different departments). We call it the 'awarding-body function'. It is about corporate responsibility for degrees that are offered."
He warned that even institutions with consistently excellent teaching quality may still fall foul. "In some cases there are bad systems but good provision. But you have to ask whether this is by chance or by design. If an institution is dependent on individuals and those people go - then what happens?" Mr Williams's stance is likely to fuel a battle between the QAA and some of Britain's most prestigious institutions. Oxford and Cambridge, where academics have ultimate democratic autonomy, are set to face particular criticism, despite their top-quality provision. "Organisations that pride themselves on the autonomy of individual lecturers make central quality management more difficult," Mr Williams said.
"It can be difficult to answer some expectations, but there should be some institutional control over the lives and activities of academics."
Neither Oxford nor Cambridge has been audited for seven years. Cambridge recently declined an invitation to be audited by the QAA and Oxford said this week that it had not yet been formally invited to take part in the institutional-level audit process.
Glasgow University has indicated that it will refuse to allow the auditors in, while Edinburgh and Newcastle have secured a delay in audit visits.
Ron Emanuel, vice-principal for learning and teaching at Glasgow University, said that it is necessary for universities to take corporate responsibility for degree quality, but that the QAA's preferred bureaucratic model of central control should not be imposed. He said: "Our subject reviews show our teaching quality is excellent and that is what is important."
Geoffrey Alderman, pro vice-chancellor responsible for quality assurance at Middlesex University, predicted a stand-off. "In a university, academic standards are owned and maintained by the academic community."
He said that the QAA had "fundamentally misunderstood the business of a university" with its "preoccupation with the notion of corporate responsibility".
Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute and former head of the Higher Education Quality Council, applauded the QAA's stance, but said it was impotent in the face of university opposition. "What is it going to do about institutions that are shown to be failing or will not let the QAA in?" he asked.