QAA appeals must be made public

Too much hangs on them for secrecy to reign, argues Geoffrey Alderman

July 11, 2013

Sooner or later, one of the QAA’s reports will form the centrepiece of a very public legal process

Hard on the heels of the revelation that the University of Southampton successfully overturned an institutional review by the Quality Assurance Agency comes news that a very different institution has achieved a similar outcome.

Southampton is a large, taxpayer-funded Russell Group member. By contrast, the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance is a much smaller for-profit that occupies a prestigious space within a niche market – but is equally a fully subscribing QAA member.

Both the Institute and Southampton will now undergo fresh reviews, but the actual findings of the appeal panels will be made public only when the new review reports are available. This does not strike me as at all satisfactory. Students – customers, if you will – are surely entitled to be able to access this information “over the counter”, rather than having to rely on media leaks.

The QAA has informed me that since January 2012 it has published only eight appeal-related reports. Every one of them involved institutions that came within its Home Office-mandated “educational oversight” procedure, and in only one case – the privately owned Goldsmith International Business School – was the appeal upheld. To date it seems that no appeal reports relating to the institutional reviews of full subscribing QAA members have been published. So the cases of Southampton and the Institute are indeed newsworthy.

Why were these appeals upheld? We must perforce rely on intelligent guesswork. According to the QAA’s complaints procedure, appeals are only allowed if there has been a demonstrable “deficiency of process” or “perversity of judgement”, or if documentation that might have affected the outcome was available but not submitted at the time of the review. In the case of Goldsmith International, we know that the appeal panel decided that on the balance of probabilities, there had indeed been a deficiency of process and a resultant perversity of judgement. Specifically, the QAA’s inspection team apparently failed to take screenshots of alleged inaccuracies on the school’s website: hence there was judged to be no “secure evidence base” in which certain negative initial findings had been grounded. When the institution was reinspected, although a number of recommendations for improvements were made, it was basically given a clean bill of health.

A great deal now hangs on any judgement published by the QAA, and not merely the question of reputational risk – a nebulous concept to be sure, but one that a court of law might need to quantify in any assessment of damages. After all, negative inspection outcomes can affect league table positions and hence recruitment, which can in turn impinge on income. Scarcely less serious is the possibility that the Home Office, ever eager to restrict the number of study visas given to international students, will use an adverse report by the watchdog as an excuse for revoking an institution’s Tier 4 sponsorship licence. So there is now a substantial economic imperative driving the recourse to appeal.

For the legal fraternity this must come as good news, but not for the QAA. Sooner or later, one of its reports will form the centrepiece of a very public legal process. What is it to do?

One lesson that it is surely already learning is that its inspection teams must be better trained. Those chosen as reviewers owe a professional duty of care towards the agency and the institutions they scrutinise. If I were a reviewer, I would make sure that I had professional indemnity insurance, or that the QAA took out such insurance on my behalf, otherwise I would simply refuse to act. The watchdog might also want to consider recording every meeting during inspection visits.

But there is a more fundamental issue at play here. Currently the QAA is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act. True, it declares that it will act in the spirit of this legislation, but the body, although private, carries out public functions so must be brought formally within the remit of the FoI statute. When an institution appeals, the outcome must be put in the public domain without delay.

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Reader's comments (1)

The first time I recall seeing the possibility of legal action in response to HEQC (later QAA) reports was an article in THE in June 1993, so almost exactly 20!years ago, and I have referred to this in my texts on higher education law (currently para 4.65 of the 2012 edition co-authored with David Palfreyman). I agree completely with Geoffrey Alderman that sooner or later we will experience a legal challenge which will be great for m'learned friends but dreadful for the system, and, of course an utter waste of public money.

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