Top universities are preparing for a showdown with the government over quality assessment.
The "94 Group" of research-intensive universities is joining forces with the elite Russell Group of 19 top research institutions to defy ministers and funding chiefs with a militant campaign against all forms of subject-level quality review.
Essex University vice-chancellor Ivor Crewe, chair of the 94 Group and a member of Universities UK's standards and quality group, has said 94 Group vice-chancellors should join the Russell Group and stand firm against subject review. It was, he said, unlikely that an inspectorate would be imposed as it would require primary legislation and the government would not take them on over it.
Under plans for an interim quality-assurance regime, between now and 2005, universities would be subjected to a mixture of subject-level review and institutional audit by the Quality Assurance Agency.
Subject review would probably be largely dropped after 2005 when a new audit-only system would be introduced.
However, emails between vice-chancellors last weekend suggest that a rebellion is brewing against the interim plan.
Professor Crewe said in an email to 94 Group colleagues, seen by The THES , that there is "vociferous hostility, particularly, but not only, from the Russell Group, to any further subject review in the interim period". He urged the 94 Group to join the Russell Group in taking a "militant line" against "unacceptable" subject review.
Professor Crewe said that the Higher Education Funding Council for England - led by director of institutions Stephen Marston, seconded from the Department for Education and Skills - is determined to continue with subject review on the grounds of accountability. There is concern that with no subject reviews until 2005, some institutions will escape QAA scrutiny for four years.
Professor Crewe said that Hefce may be determined to continue with subject review "to placate a nervous and sceptical minister". He said that UUK officers had warned vice-chancellors that if they rejected subject review, they could face "something worse, such as a national inspectorate".
Professor Crewe's email said: "It is true that Margaret Hodge has made off-the-cuff remarks in favour of an inspectorate, but it would require primary legislation, which would consume precious parliamentary time and force difficult debates in the House of Lords.
"The government will not make it a high priority nor pick a fight with the sector over this issue when they need our cooperation to deliver the 50 per cent (student participation) by 2010 pledge."
An email from Sussex University vice-chancellor Alasdair Smith to his colleagues in the 94 Group warns that Hefce is "very keen" to keep some subject review.
He said it was "not clear to what extent any Hefce wish to keep some subject review is Hefce's genuine wish or in fact a tactic to keep Margaret Hodge from doing something worse. I've had an exchange with Ron (Cooke, vice-chancellor of York University) on this, and his advice was that we should fight hard against any retention of subject review."
This week, Ms Hodge's office declined to rule out setting up an inspectorate, saying it would not and could not comment on leaks. It said discussions continue about the new method and it was "essential to strike the right balance between accountability and the burden of inspection".
A senior Hefce source said that there was little doubt that Ms Hodge's office was "becoming frustrated" at the sector's inability to reach agreement on the way forward, but he said there was little evidence that "all this talk about an Ofsted in the wings has any basis in fact at all". He suggested that it was "a conspiracy theory too far".
Mr Marston said: "We have made very good progress in agreeing the new quality-assurance framework. The only issue now is the nature of the review activity in the interim before the new framework is fully implemented. As always, that interim activity has to meet the needs of all parties, securing accountability without imposing unnecessary burdens."
Ms Hodge has remained aloof, reserving her endorsement of the QAA's latest operational model until a working group headed by Professor Cooke reports on how much information universities should make public under the new regime.
The Cooke group, which met to finalise its plans this week, is likely to recommend the controversial publication of summaries of external examiners' reports, and the creation of a national student feedback survey in which parents and prospective students will be given information on past students' views on the quality of their courses.