Universities instinctively resist attempts to hold them accountable over academic standards, said former education chief Michael Bichard.
Sir Michael, in his first major public speech since stepping down in May 2001 as permanent secretary of the Department for Education and Employment, said that universities' natural urge was to look inwards at their own priorities rather than consider the needs of students and employers.
Sir Michael, who took over as rector of the London Institute in September, said: "What we cannot afford as we widen access and target higher attainment is to revert to a system that lacks accountability. Of course we must, wherever possible, reduce bureaucracy and target the inspection effort when it is most needed, but we must not lose the accountability."
Sir Michael, who addressed the North of England Education Conference last Friday, said professional judgement was important, but great strides had been made in recent years to hold the education system to account. He urged the government not to dilute accountability to curry favour with the education establishment.
There have been suggestions that higher education institutions are trying to dilute accountability. The teaching inspection system, run by the Quality Assurance Agency since 1997, has resulted in a spectacular rise in highly rated departments. But the QAA's teaching quality assessments have caused the sector to complain that they were too intrusive, bureaucratic, time consuming and expensive.
A slimmed-down version of the TQA was produced last year under the aegis of John Randall, then chief executive of the QAA. But universities rejected Mr Randall's lighter touch blueprint, precipitating his resignation. Debate is still raging over the degree of inspection required.
Sir Michael said that higher education expansion, to meet the government's 50 per cent target by 2010, depended on institutions becoming more focused on clients. He urged universities and colleges to reach out to local communities to recruit more people from poor backgrounds and to help raise attainment in schools.
"Unless that happens, the 50 per cent participation rate will not be achieved," he said.
Sir Michael said that matters would improve with the establishment of a leadership college to train vice-chancellors and senior managers in higher education.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said UUK was committed to accountability but added that the costs of inspections could be reduced.