Universities could face more intensive scrutiny during future inspections by the standards watchdog, according to its head.
Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, said that the next round of institutional audits by the QAA might pay closer attention to first-hand evidence of academic standards, such as external examiners' reports.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Mr Williams said that although he was confident standards in higher education were being maintained, the QAA had a responsibility to prove this to the public.
He added that he believed the sector recognised the need to address some of the concerns about standards raised publicly after a series of critical reports in the media last summer (see box right).
Giving evidence to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills (IUSS) Select Committee earlier this month as part of its investigation into higher education standards, Mr Williams said that in the future the quality assurance process might "look more at what I would call primary evidence instead of secondary evidence".
He added that the QAA might negotiate with the Government for greater regulatory powers to make its work "more intensive" in some areas.
This week, he told Times Higher Education that the QAA was beginning to think about how its institutional audit process should change, but stressed that these were "early thoughts".
At the moment, the process requires universities to produce a self- evaluation document, which focuses on how they manage academic standards and ensure quality.
"The audit is really a testing of self-evaluation, but from time to time it is sensible to look at the actual processes in action," Mr Williams explained.
While the IUSS Select Committee was conducting its inquiry into standards, the QAA launched its own investigation into claims made to the committee and in the press that they had fallen. To this end, the QAA said it had been analysing media coverage and blogs, and conducting interviews and focus groups with people across the sector.
A final report will be published by the watchdog later this year. It is expected to say that higher education in England is fundamentally sound, but that further investigation is needed into the range of contact hours students receive, the processes used to identify, train and support external examiners, and universities' assessment and degree-classification practices.
It will also call for more effective methods to inform the public about academic standards in higher education and the ways they are maintained.
Mr Williams said: "It is very important that the public should have confidence. The world of higher education isn't always as transparent as it needs to be."
He hoped that institutions and the QAA's work would deliver this transparency by reassuring the public about standards and how they were preserved.
"We want to be able to show more clearly why we believe there is nothing seriously wrong," he added.
Mr Williams said he would "not be surprised" if his organisation took "a close look" at the external examiner system, and the way in which universities arrived at and validated their teaching strategies, including how they approached students' workloads and contact hours.
"We will want to know more precisely how institutions use external examiners, and how (universities) ensure that they provide the kind of security for academic standards that is frequently, if not always, claimed for them," he said.
"We would also want to know in more detail how far they take seriously the higher education qualifications framework (which describes the level of achievement represented by different higher education degrees), and subject benchmark statements (which set out expectations about the standards of degrees in particular subjects). We might want to see how these are brought to the attention of the public in, for example, programme specifications."
Mr Williams emphasised that he did not expect to see a return to subject inspections and said that the QAA was "very conscious" of its duty not to overburden higher education institutions.
However, quality assurance was "an evolutionary process" and could not stand still, he added.
The QAA's approach would remain "as light as possible, bearing in mind the object of the exercise", but he warned: "We must make sure that the 'light touch' is the right touch."
The current cycle of audits comes to an end in 2011, and in the coming months the QAA will meet with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Universities UK, the body representing vice-chancellors, and GuildHE, representing a group of higher education institutions, to discuss how the next cycle might work. A consultation document is due to be launched this autumn.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
Since summer 2008, the media has run a series of stories claiming higher education standards are declining. Here are a few of the newspaper headlines on the subject:
Blind eye turned to exam cheats
Student walks out over standards
Standards lowered for rankings
A degree of disappointment
Watchdog: degree grades arbitrary
Foreigners who want 'degrees for fees'
Email leak of degree inflation
Universities are dumbing down, say lecturers