Quality chiefs have called on the government to reform universities' constitutions to guarantee students access to more rigorous and independent procedures for handling complaints and appeals.
The call follows the failure of the Quality Assurance Agency, despite ministerial support, to develop the Dearing report's recommendation that students should have access to an "independent, external" review of complaints and appeals.
Ministers are now "minded" to set up a consultation on reforms, according to leaked documents. This could spell the end of the ancient visitorial system of dispute resolution in old universities and lead to constitutional reforms in new universities.
As The THES reported in March, the QAA has, on legal advice, withdrawn a section on external review from its code of practice on student complaints and appeals. The QAA said that Dearing's recommendation will be feasible only with constitutional reform.
The QAA published the code this week, confirming that legal difficulties had prevented it from including "precepts" that would have given students access to "an independent person or body" from outside the institution to review complaints.
The QAA's lawyers have told it that new universities, defined by the courts as public bodies governed by the principles of public law, cannot be legally bound by the decisions of any independent external review, except judicial review, as they have no constitutional powers to delegate such matters.
To be able to delegate, a new university would need express empowerment from the Privy Council, through reformed instruments and articles of governance.
Old universities, with a royal charter are subject to different barriers to external review, the QAA said, as they already have a "visitor" to deal with complaints and appeals, and this could be deemed to be both independent and external. But the quasi-judicial visitor system, the QAA accepted for the first time, is badly flawed, and may not even meet the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In an appendix to its code, the QAA said: "In general, the government departments or other offices that provide support to visitors are not resourced to cope with any significant volume of complaints. In some cases, matters are processed expeditiously, in others there are criticisms concerning, for the most part, matters of procedure and delay."
The THES reported in January that the lord chancellor's department, which acts as visitor for several universities, offered "profound apologies" for a series of blunders in handling a student's complaint. It admitted it did not have the resources to deal properly with student complaints.
The QAA said the government and the universities should consider amendments to the articles of government of higher education corporations to give effect to the Dearing recommendation.
Lifelong learning minister Malcolm Wicks said that he will "consider the position in the light of the QAA's code and discussions with representative bodies".