Autonomy could be under threat as Whitehall considers reviewing universities' constitutions to ensure tougher procedures for student complaints and appeals.
A confidential paper by the Quality Assurance Agency reveals that the Department for Education and Employment has indicated privately it is "minded" to consult on plans to change
universities' constitutions and to reform the visitorial system of dispute resolution in old universities.
Provision for the independent, external review of student complaints was a key recommendation of the Dearing report into higher education, and it has been backed up by ministers. The expected government consultation follows the collapse of the QAA's plans to set up external review mechanisms through its code of practice on student complaints and appeals.
Legal advisers to the QAA have warned that its plans to impose external reviews under its planned code of practice would be unenforceable without constitutional changes.
Old universities set up under royal charter are bound by decisions of the visitor, an external and arguably independent person whose authority on dispute resolution is upheld by the courts. The QAA will calll for the reform of the visitorial system to ensure consistency between universities.
New universities are subject to judicial review, but their constitutions prohibit them being bound by any other external element.
"The courts have held higher education corporations to be public institutions, discharging public functions," the QAA paper said. This means they cannot abdicate decision-making powers to any outside body. They therefore cannot legally agree to be bound by the decisions of any independent, external review.
The QAA paper says: "For a higher education corporation to implement the arrangements for independent, external review, it would have to seek an amendment to its articles of government to provide the appropriate power. Such amendments are a matter for the Privy Council."
Reform of the visitorial system in old universities and the imposition of an external review in new universities would require such constitutional change.
In a planned appendix to the code of practice, the QAA intends to call on the government to review universities' constitutions.