Universities could face robust action if they allow quality to slip in certain degree subjects, or if they lower their expectations for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Tougher minimum standards would be set for institutions in England to ensure all students access high quality courses that prepare them for work after graduation under plans by the Office for Students (OfS).
The watchdog has set out its proposals to raise the bar on quality and standards in higher education.
Institutions that fail to address concerns about quality could potentially be found to be in breach of their registration conditions and face action, such as a fine, or they could have their registration revoked.
The OfS’s proposals, which are now open for consultation, include new definitions of quality and standards which set out what institutions would need to do to satisfy OfS’s conditions of registration.
It comes as Universities UK (UUK), an organisation which represents university vice-chancellors, said it would create a charter to ensure that institutions in England identify and improve potentially low quality courses.
There have been concerns among ministers that some university courses do little to improve students’ life chances or help with their careers goals.
Universities and colleges must be registered with the OfS if they wish to access public funds, for example for their students to receive government loans for tuition fees.
The OfS has a range of powers to sanction institutions if they are found to have breached a condition of their registration, including financial penalties and revoking a registration.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said the regulator can use its “full range of powers” if any of their registration conditions are breached.
She said: “These proposals strengthen our ability to intervene where we have concerns.
“We have previously been clear that we are determined to stamp out any pockets of low quality, and these proposals would not only raise the bar in terms of the quality overall, but would enable us to monitor quality at a subject level, as well as taking into account issues which might be affecting students from particular groups.”
Ms Dandridge added: “We are also making it clear that we do not accept that expectations should be lowered for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“All students are entitled to the same minimum level of quality and outcomes, and it would be untenable to have a regulatory system which allowed universities to recruit students from underrepresented groups but then set lower expectations for their success.”
The consultation is taking place at an early stage in policy development so that a wide range of views can be taken into account before the watchdog consults on more detailed proposals in 2021.
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: “I am pleased that the OfS aims to raise the bar on quality and standards. We must have robust regulation of our higher education system, which includes strong action if standards slip and principles which protect students’ interests.”
She added: “We want all university students, regardless of their background, to benefit from high quality, world-leading higher education. Our manifesto promised to explore ways to tackle low quality courses, and we continue to support the Office for Students on this.”
A UUK spokeswoman said: “The overwhelming majority of higher education courses are high quality and offer good value for students, but we want to address concerns that some could deliver more – including for students, taxpayers, and employers.
“Yesterday (Monday) we announced the development of a new charter to help universities take consistent and more transparent approaches in tackling low quality or low value courses.”