Universities will have to satisfy inspectors in four key areas and draw up action plans on how to improve - even if they pass inspections with flying colours - under plans unveiled by the Quality Assurance Agency.
The watchdog is publishing proposals this week for a new system of institutional audit to be introduced in September 2011, which it hopes will reassure the public that adequate standards are being met in higher education.
Under the revised system, inspectors would meet more students during their visits and may choose to talk to employers, external examiners and recent graduates, according to the consultation document to be published on 1 October.
If the measures are introduced, universities in England and Northern Ireland will be formally judged on whether they are meeting nationally agreed "threshold standards" and on the quality of information they publish for students and applicants.
Currently, universities have to produce an action plan only if they are given a verdict of "limited confidence" or "no confidence" after an inspection. The new method, however, would require all universities to prepare an action plan after the visit, whatever the verdict.
Last year, a cross-party committee of MPs accused the QAA of focusing too heavily on checking processes rather than examining standards.
The new process - which would be known as "institutional review" - would see a significant shift towards assuring the public that threshold standards are being met.
Reviews would "look at both process and direct evidence from students", allowing reviewers to "make judgements about academic quality and standards outcomes", and there would be a greater focus on the Academic Infrastructure - the "toolkit" universities use to set academic standards.
Auditors currently make judgements in two areas. Their reports state whether they have confidence in "the soundness of the institution's current and likely future management of the academic standards of its awards" and its management of the "quality of the learning opportunities" available to students.
The new proposals would see universities judged on:
• Threshold academic standards. These would be defined as the standards required to be able to label a degree "bachelor's" or "master's" but would not relate to degree classifications
• Quality of public information (from 2012). Review teams would look at how institutions keep this up to date and accurate
• Quality of students' learning opportunities
• Enhancement of students' learning opportunities. This would cover steps the university is taking to improve teaching, support and learning resources.
Under one option being considered, universities would receive a simple pass/fail judgement made in each of the four areas.
In the area of standards, review teams would judge whether the institution's threshold standards "are at a level expected".
The second option would allow more precise judgements. Reports would declare that an institution's threshold standards were "good", "satisfactory", "require substantial improvement" or "unsatisfactory".
Future reviews would also include a "thematic" element to allow the agency to respond to emerging issues, and reviews would be conducted on a rolling basis instead of the current six-year cycle. The consultation deadline is 26 November.