Academic fraud a ‘real challenge’ to UK’s quality assurance

Head of QAA says a wave of allegations against alternative providers shows need for action on academic malpractice

April 25, 2018

Allegations of academic fraud have been made against nearly 20 alternative higher education providers in London in recent months, the head of the UK’s standards watchdog has said.

Warning that fraud and malpractice now pose a “real challenge” to traditional quality assurance in higher education, Douglas Blackstock, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, said that his organisation had “recently received and, in some cases, investigated allegations about admissions, malpractice, academic fraud and the falsification of evidence in 19 alternative providers in London.”

In a speech to the QAA’s annual conference on 25 April, which is taking place at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama Cardiff, Mr Blackstock said that while “not all have been found to be valid concerns”, it had just “published four reports with negative judgements, with one more to follow”.

He did not name the institutions involved, but the QAA’s website contains details of several London institutions that have been subject to snap inspections in recent months.

Among them is the East End Computing and Business College, which was visited by QAA reviewers in December to investigate whether procedures around suspected academic malpractice were being followed.

While the college, which offers higher national diplomas in business, health and social care, had policies to deal with this issue, reviewers said that concerns in these areas were “justified” because some cases of academic malpractice were “dealt with only informally”. The college, which passed its QAA review in October 2017, was given four weeks to state how it would deal with the issues, according to the report published in March.

Commenting on how “protecting the academic integrity of UK higher education has been a major part of our recent work”, Mr Blackstock said that the QAA had “reflected on how, in some cases, our review processes failed to identify the alleged problems”.  

“We accept that academic fraud poses real challenges for traditional quality assurance, and we’ll need to develop innovative new tools and approaches to tackle it,” he added.

In October, the QAA published guidance for the sector aimed at combating the use of essay mills and contract cheating. In March, the Advertising Standards Authority upheld the QAA’s complaint about an essay mill company, UK Essays, stopping them from using misleading advertising.

“We’re now planning to strengthen our capacity to tackle these issues, and work with sector partners to fight cheating and fraud in higher education, in all its forms,” said Mr Blackstock.

In addition, the QAA had continued to police quality and standards across the UK sector and was set to conduct about 220 reviews and annual monitoring events in 2017-18, which had seen 18 commendations and 129 features of good practice so far.  

However, three further education colleges had been given unsatisfactory quality reviews, as had four alternative providers with unsatisfactory Higher Education Reviews, while a further three alternative providers had achieved unsatisfactory results under annual monitoring checks, he said.

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