The Higher Education Quality Council is highly critical of Southampton Institute of Higher Education's overseas links in its audit report published this week. It was due to be discussed by governors on Wednesday.
The council criticised the institute for withholding from potential overseas partners the fact that it does not hold degree-awarding powers and only awards higher level programmes validated by Nottingham Trent University.
The HEQC's criticism follows the revelation last month that the institute was passing itself off as a university in advertising literature circulated in Greece and the Channel Islands (THES, May 10 and 17).
In the audit, conducted last November and published on Wednesday, the HEQC said the institute did "not appear to have made it clear to the Spanish partners" either that it lacked the power to award its own degrees or that it was tied to Nottingham Trent.
The HEQC found evidence that the institute, which runs business and leisure management courses in Barcelona and Alicante, told overseas contacts of the need to convince "the regional educational authority that 'we are a legitimate organisation granting degrees recognised by the United Kingdom Government'". Nottingham Trent was never mentioned, and the validation document referred only to "agreement with a British university".
The HEQC said the Spanish case illustrated wider "concerns" about quality assurance, and it questioned whether the institute's "stated confidence in the quality assurance arrangements for its overseas partnerships is entirely well-founded and fully secure".
The institute - whose extensive international links also include programmes in Greece and India - is broadly criticised for developing validation and quality assurance procedures for overseas activities which "differ markedly" from UK collaborative activity. The HEQC expressed concern that the institute's procedures are "not so assiduously applied" in the international context and run counter to "what might be accepted as entirely safe and good practice".
The HEQC was concerned about "some ambiguities" surrounding the MBA course in Bombay which was "variously described to the team as a partnership involving some teaching by Bombay staff, a form of distance learning utilising the Internet, and a programme wholly taught in Bombay by institute staff".
It feared that the institute was not addressing factors such as library resources which threatened to "seriously jeopardise" the quality of the courses. It also suspected that overseas franchise students did not enjoy effective pastoral support.
In a statement, the institute acknowledged that it was "as yet inexperienced in overseas work and franchises with partner colleges in comparison with many universities". But in a sharp rebuttal of the HEQC's report, it noted that "the auditors had no first-hand evidence that quality was inappropriate since none of the franchises were visited".