Appealed QAA review of Southampton stays secret after all

Critics cry ‘cop-out’ over decision on publishing report

May 7, 2015
Confidential documents locked with padlock and chain

The Quality Assurance Agency has refused to release details of the first successful appeal against critical findings in a university review, despite previously stating that the information would be made public.

A review by the watchdog of the University of Southampton, published on 30 April, stated that the institution met or exceeded expectations in all areas of higher education provision.

But it made no mention of an earlier review, conducted in 2012 and set aside by the QAA the following year after Southampton successfully appealed against the findings in the first case of its kind. The latest, successful, inspection was carried out by new reviewers.

A joint statement issued by the regulator and the university at the time of the appeal stated that the findings of the appeal panel would “be published when the new review report is available”.

In 2014, the QAA changed its rules to keep details of appeals secret, claiming that publicity could cause “inadvertent reputational damage” and deter institutions from using the appeal process.

At that point, it was still thought that details of the Southampton appeal, which predated the change in the rules, would be made public.

The QAA has now confirmed that, as the second review took place entirely after the rule change, no details of the appeal will be released.

Geoffrey Alderman, professor of politics and history at the University of Buckingham and former head of the University of London’s academic council, said that the episode would “only confirm suspicions about whether the QAA is a truly transparent body”.

“I think it’s a cop-out,” he said. “The QAA has a credibility problem and cases like this don’t make that problem any easier to deal with.”

Roger Brown, emeritus professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University and a former chief executive of the QAA’s predecessor, the Higher Education Quality Council, said that publishing appeals would let institutions show how they had responded to criticism.

“As a general rule, these reports should always be made public; I cannot think of any good reason why they should not,” Professor Brown said. “Given that we are moving into a more marketised and competitive situation, that seems to me to increase the case for transparency.”

While a number of universities have received critical QAA reviews, no member of the Russell Group has ever had a negative judgement.

Don Nutbeam, Southampton’s vice-chancellor, said that the latest review “leaves us in no doubt about the quality of the measures we have in place to achieve and maintain the very best academic standards”.

The publication of the new Southampton review comes as the future of quality assurance and potentially the QAA itself is under scrutiny. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has said that it will invite external bodies to bid for work currently undertaken by the watchdog.

A QAA spokeswoman said: “When QAA changed its rules in December 2013…a decision was made then that the new rules would apply to any reviews completed after January 2014. As the Southampton review completed in its entirety after January 2014, the new process therefore applies.”

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