Letter from Peter Williams, Chief Executive,
Quality Assurance Agency to the Chairman of the Committee
Further to my letter of 14 October I am now
writing, as promised, with more information about our follow-up
to the various stories about academic quality and standards in
higher education that appeared in the press during the summer
and have been received by QAA since.
There have been three principal sources for
these stories: direct approaches to QAA; material received from
Professor Geoffrey Alderman; and the BBC. The direct approaches
to QAA include redirected enquiries from third parties.
Since the start of July we have received 12
direct approaches in relation to academic quality and standards.
I am attaching a table listing these, together with information
about the nature of the concern, our analysis of it and the action
we have taken. You will see from this that a number of these are
personal grievances against institutions rather than systemic
problems; others relate to employment disputes; and some reflect
the complainant's personal, sometimes perhaps idiosyncratic, views
on education. Having analysed carefully all these submissions,
we have followed up four with the higher education institutions
or the students concerned.
In addition to the direct approaches to QAA,
Professor Alderman, at our request, has forwarded to us six instances
where correspondents have contacted him with stories about academic
quality and standards, following publication of news stories about
his inaugural lecture at the University of Buckingham. He has
told us that he has received other communications, which he will
not forward to us until he has obtained permission from the authors.
We do not know how many of these there are, but believe it is
probably a small number.
Of the six communications forwarded to us by
Professor Alderman, we have judged three appropriate for further
enquiry. The other three we have excluded either because the concerns
were very old or because they were general rather than specific.
The attached table indicates the action taken in respect of the
first three cases.
Most of the stories during the summer appeared
on the BBC Online website. The great majority of these were unattributed
or without any information that would allow us to follow them
up (ie no higher education institution was named and no other
usable evidence was included). Given the claims of the BBC journalist
that hundreds of comments had been received by the website on
this topic, we invited him, immediately following your Committee's
hearing on 17 July, to send us all these accounts so that we could
follow up any that were sufficiently specific. He advised that
he might not be able to do so, citing the need to protect the
confidentiality of his sources, the need to get prior consent
from the complainants, and advice from the BBC lawyers about the
nature of the allegations made. We have recently followed this
conversation up with a formal request, but have not, as yet, had
In the absence of this material we are unable
to pursue any particular lines of enquiry arising from the comments
made to the BBC. However, we are re-analysing the content of the
previously published BBC readers' responses, using qualitative
data analysis software, to see if there are any common themes
or trends discernable.
As I informed you in my previous letter, we
are also undertaking research into five areas where the interest
in standards and quality has been concentrated: student contact
hours, international students' English language capacity; international
students' recruitment; external examining; and student assessment.
We hope to have an interim report by early December, and to complete
the project in the New Year. I shall keep you informed of our
Please let me know if you require any further
information or clarification of this letter.
30 October 2008
|Date of incident||Alleged Cause for Concern
||Initial analysis||Follow up action
||Student was rejected for an MA in Islamic Studies due to age. Minimum age for entry was 23.
||Universities are responsible for setting their own admissions criteria; however this case may breach the recently implemented age discrimination legislation.
||Complainant was referred to the University's internal complaints procedure and the Equality Challenge Unit.|
||Student was dissatisfied with dissertation marking practices. Informed that their dissertation would not be marked until a specified level of credits was achieved. Student believes dissertation was marked before this was the case.
||Personal grievance and no evidence of widespread threat to academic standards.
||Personal grievance, appropriate response sent.|
||Student complained about the leniency of marking. They did not believe that they should have passed their course and alleged that the University was deliberately passing students who should fail.
||Question of academic judgement on standards. No evidence of malpractice or systemic procedural failure. No substantive evidence.
||Detailed personal letter sent from Chief Executive.|
||Student failed dissertation twice and decided to transfer to different university. First university would not provide credit for the two years of completed study.
||Credit systems are not compulsory and the university does not have a system in place.
||Response sent from Communications.|
||Complaint also sent to HEFCE. Staff member alleged widespread plagiarism at the university.
||Allegation is eligible for further investigation; however the complainant signed a compromise agreement following a related Employment Tribunal that would put QAA at risk of prosecution if any evidence were solicited. Complainant has refused to submit a formal complaint unless protection against litigation can be guaranteed.
||Response sent from Chief Executive to explain that no protection against litigation is possible. Advice sought from QAA's solicitor.|
Allegation currently with HEFCE.
||Member of public declared there was no validity in teaching Modern Art as a subject.
||Question of academic judgement. Universities are autonomous and decide which courses and subjects to teach.
||Personal letter sent from Chief Executive.|
||Student was dissatisfied with examination arrangements.
||College is not an HEI and has no relationship with QAA.
||Personal letter sent from Chief Executive. Complainant was referred to QCA.|
||Student complained that they had shown no improvement in recent marks at university since failing examinations at College of HE in 1981.
||Further information is required. This is most likely a personal grievance.
||Personal letter sent from Chief Executive.|
||Referred from HEFCE. Member of university staff advised QAA that an external examiner for a Music course had been pressurised into changing their report.
||Allegation investigated through Causes for Concern procedure.
||Preliminary investigation undertaken. Allegation upheld, but effluxion of time and subsequent changes to university practice rendered further action unnecessary. QAA in discussion with University re publication of investigation report.|
||Allegation that evidence was falsified for a QAA Foundation Degree review.
||Further information is required. Director of Reviews has written to the Vice-Chancellor.
||Waiting for response from Vice-Chancellor.|
||Student submitted a project in June 2005 as part of BA course. It is alleged that the work went missing until March 2007 and that the student never received a mark for this work. Student then deferred until a later date but did not fulfil the requirements of Stage 1 of the award. The course has changed extensively since 2005 and it is now not possible for the student to complete the qualification.
||Comms referred the enquirer to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education as they had exhausted the internal complaints procedure with the institution and this is a personal grievance.
||Email response sent by Comms.|
||Student enrolled on the "Postgraduate level certificate in Teaching in Lifelong Learning" but has now been told that the qualification awarded is an "Extra Mural Certificate", but the same course and the same level, and fully accredited.
||Appears to be confusion re nomenclature and status of qualification.
||Clarification sought from institution re naming of qualifications.|
|Date of incident
||Alleged Cause for Concern||Initial analysis
||Follow up action|
|| Referred by Professor G. Alderman. QAA was asked to re-examine responses received from a university re academic standards in the light of recent adjudication in linked Employment Tribunal.
||Considered by QAA prior to notification by Prof. Alderman. QAA is confident that the university reviewed the circumstances of this case carefully at the time and revised its procedures appropriately. ET ruling subject to appeal.
||No further action required.|
||Referred by Professor G. Alderman. Member of staff was pressurised to revisit marks for course examinations.
||Further information is required before action can be taken. No formal allegation has been made to QAA by the member of staff in question. Professor Alderman has been advised to ask the member of staff to contact QAA directly if they wish to make a formal complaint.
||Waiting for response from member of staff.|
||Referred by Professor G. Alderman. A student who failed to get the required offer grades was refused discretionary entry to a degree course because the university would not recognise one of their A-levels, as this was assumed to be in the student's mother tongue. Allegation that the possible discounting of native language A-levels was not made clear to the student prior to application.
||Further information is required. Student has appealed to the university.
||University asked if this is standard policy, and if so, where it is publicly stated. Appears to be an isolated discretionary decision by an individual, but unsupported by explicit and published institutional policy. Further clarification has been sought, but QAA has since been informed that the student has made a formal written complaint direct to the university. QAA will therefore await the result of the internal investigation before deciding whether further enquiries are appropriate|