Locking universities into a "beauty contest" for students will lead to rampant grade inflation and will fail to improve academic standards, warns a report published today.
Privatising Our Universities, an analysis by the University and College Union, criticises both the government and the Conservative opposition for casting students as "arbiters of quality".
David Willetts, the Conservative shadow universities secretary, has asked whether "well-crafted student surveys" combined with graduate employment rates could do the job of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), while the Labour government has called for more information on the quality of teaching programmes and graduate job prospects.
The UCU argues that the theory behind these moves - that competition for students will force poor universities out of the market and drive up standards - is flawed.
"The US experience suggests that a quality regime based on student evaluations does little to raise academic standards and can produce rampant grade inflation as institutions and staff compete to secure positive feedback," it says.
A 2002 report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences cited in the report attributes grade inflation to the advent of student evaluations of academics and more use of casual staff, whose chances of securing permanent positions depend on student feedback.
Other US research shows universities have responded to a competitive market by seeking to improve their reputations rather than their academic standards, the UCU adds.
It says that many US institutions now make a direct link between positive student evaluations and academic advancement, "creating an in-built incentive to over-grade".
There is evidence that students' views of their lecturers are already being fed into quality assurance processes at some UK institutions.
Minutes of a recent meeting of the University of Bradford's teaching and learning committee note "strong support for a link between module evaluation output data and performance review for staff" as "it was felt to be important that students could see where their feedback was going and that it was being taken seriously". Such data are considered in staff performance reviews at other institutions, the minutes say.
Privatising Our Universities also complains of a "dangerous cross-party consensus" about the benefits of encouraging universities to rely on private-sector income and about growth in the private for-profit sector.
More dependence on private income will mean more instability in the sector, the union says, citing the job cuts and course closures that resulted after the endowments of US institutions were hit by instability in the equity markets.
Harvard University's endowment shrank from $37 billion (£24.6 billion) in June 2008 to $29 billion by the end of that year. It announced 9 job cuts in June 2009.
And while private providers in the UK call for access to public funds and "light touch" regulation, the UCU argues that BPP, a private college with degree-awarding powers, is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Sally Hunt, the union's general secretary, said: "This report should act as a warning for both parties. Wistful glances across the pond are nothing new, but trying to cherry-pick certain aspects of a system that is fundamentally different from ours just will not work."