University inspections face overhaul
How the quality of university courses in the UK is checked is to be overhauled in the next few years.
The higher education funding councils have announced a review of how universities are monitored.
There will be a public tendering process to run the university inspection system from 2017.
The current watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency, says that it already offers "internationally recognised expertise" in ensuring quality.
The announcement raises the prospect of a new system for protecting the quality of higher education.
It is the first time that the contract for running the watchdog system will have been put out to competitive tender in this way.
It follows major changes in the university sector - with more consumer pressure from students paying higher tuition fees and an increasing number of private providers needing to be overseen.
It will also become a bigger sector next year with the removal of limits on student numbers.
Universities are autonomous and responsible for their own standards - but since 1997 the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has had a role in checking that these standards are maintained.
The funding councils say they want assessment arrangements that are "risk-based, proportionate, affordable, and low burden".
There will be a consultation process followed by competitive bids to run the quality assurance monitoring.
There could also be a split in the current UK-wide system - with England, Wales and Northern Ireland carrying out a review separately from a parallel review announced for Scotland.
A spokeswoman for the QAA says it would bid for the contract.
"QAA has internationally recognised expertise in providing quality assurance and enhancement to an exceptional standard," said chairman Sir Rodney Brooke.
"In recent years, we have continued to adapt the quality assurance framework to meet the needs of a growing and dynamic sector, working with higher education, further education and alternative providers.
"We look forward to continuing the development of quality assessment, protecting the public interest and supporting the UK higher education sector's international reputation for excellence."
The QAA carries out a watchdog role, but it is a very different type of organisation from Ofsted which inspects schools. While Ofsted has been debating whether a day's warning allows schools too much time to prepare for inspectors, the QAA can warn universities of a review several years in advance.
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of universities, said she wanted a "proportional approach" which would require less "inspection and bureaucracy" for older, well established institutions.
"Our universities will not flourish if they are over-regulated. Resources should be focused where problems of quality are most likely to occur."
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of universities, said the funding councils need "to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater".
"While there have been concerns about the QAA's modus operandi, the system is certainly not broken and has the advantage of being UK-wide in scope and internationally recognised.
"Higher education would certainly not benefit from an Ofsted-style inspection regime."
Nick Davy from the Association of Colleges said that the review process needed to recognise that about 10% of all funding-council regulated higher education was delivered in further education colleges.
Mr Davy said any quality assurance system needed to be appropriate to assessing the type of technical and professional education wanted by employers.