Vice-chancellors and principals have caved in over plans for reporting the quality of university teaching, accepting a blueprint they condemned as "unacceptable" just weeks ago.
The climbdown by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Standing Conference of Principals pits key parts of the sector against quality watchdogs, funding chiefs and the government. Some elite universities are threatening to boycott the regime.
Objections to the Quality Assurance Agency proposals have already been raised by Oxford and Durham universities and University College London, which is threatening to take the battle "all the way up to ministerial level" if necessary.
But quality chiefs have warned that institutions that refuse to cooperate could have funding withheld.
Final proposals for reporting "judgements on the quality of learning opportunities" were published on Wednesday in a joint statement agreed by the QAA, the CVCP, SCOP and the funding councils.
Departments will be categorised as "commendable", "approved" or "failing" in each of three areas of provision: teaching and learning, student progression and learning resources. Best practice in any area will be deemed "exemplary".
The blueprint is almost identical to plans roundly rejected by both the CVCP and SCOP in early December. In its submission to the QAA, SCOP was categorical: "SCOP is opposed to a single 'summative' rating, or summative ratings on individual aspects of quality."
The CVCP agreed with SCOP, arguing that single summative judgements on any individual aspects of quality would mislead the public, leading to invalid comparisons among institutions with different aims and objectives and assume comparability where it did not exist.
The CVCP and SCOP appear to have been brought in line by the funding councils, which insisted on a system in which simple, easily comparable judgements could be made, and by ministers, who prefer clearly accountable performance measures.
A more narrative approach, as suggested by the CVCP and SCOP, was rejected.
Insiders say that despite the objections, CVCP and SCOP representatives had to accept at a crunch meeting with quality watchdogs that they would have to "bite the bullet" or face having a more inspectorial system imposed on them.
But this week, CVCP chief executive Baroness Warwick, who handled the negotiations on behalf of vice-chancellors, denied there had been a climbdown. She said: "We have something that has substantially achieved our objectives. I think our members will acknowledge that."
However, UCL has warned the QAA that it disagrees "with the entire proposed system", and if it remains unchanged it will "not be prepared to take part". Oxford University said it was "unlikely to wish to cooperate with them in this form". Durham University said the system was potentially confusing and over-bureaucratic.
John Randall, chief executive of the QAA, said that it was not appropriate to talk about victories or defeats. "We have something that reflects the balance between a range of interests," he said.
But he conceded that the funding councils' demands held sway.
"The funding councils needed a style of reporting that could report on relative quality of provision on a consistent basis that could inform funding decisions. They needed consistency and and a greater degree of comparability."
Asked about institutions that may refuse to volunteer for QAA audits, Mr Randall said: "Voluntary is not the right word. The funding councils have a statutory responsibility to assess the quality of the provision that they pay for and they contract with us to carry out that assessment on their behalf. The system is only voluntary for institutions insofar as they do not have to receive public funds."
But he insisted that institutions would accept the plans without a fight. "In dealing with the people who will be at the sharp end of this, those who have to make it work, I have not encountered hostility."
* THE KEY POINTS
Three aspects of provision will be judged: teaching and learning, student progression and effective use of learning resources.
In each category, departments will be marked failing, approved or commendable. A sub-category of commendable, "exemplary", will designate sector-leading best practice "worthy of dissemination and emulation by others". There will be a detailed narrative report and a "concise" summary for external audiences. Institutions found failing in any aspect will be deemed to be failing overall.