Audit critic is lone UK failure

January 13, 2006

First 'no confidence' vote by quality watchdog goes to private institution led by QAA sceptic. Phil Baty reports

Quality watchdogs have privately delivered their first vote of "no confidence" in the academic standards of an entire university following a routine audit.

The Times Higher has learnt that the American InterContinental University in London (AIU London) has been informed by the Quality Assurance Agency that it has failed an audit carried out by a team of inspectors last year.

AIU London may appear to be an innocuous institution, with its modest UK campus tucked away on London's Marylebone High Street. But the ruling represents an unprecedented baring of teeth by the watchdog, and has major implications for the largest provider of degrees in the country - the Open University, which awards AIU London's degrees.

It is understood that the judgment is being disputed by the private London institution, which is led by Geoffrey Alderman, an outspoken critic of the QAA. Thus the official verdict may not be made public for months and could be changed before publication.

AIU London declined to comment on the judgment this week, and QAA chief executive Peter Williams would say only that "the normal procedures for the completion of the audit process are being undertaken".

Professor Alderman is a former QAA inspector himself. So he will have known what was at stake when he put the AIU forward to be audited by the inspectors. An approval from the inspectors would have provided a powerful marketing tool for the university.

A negative judgment would come as a major personal blow to Professor Alderman. As senior vice-president of AIU London, he led the audit process.

AIU is a for-profit institution with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, where it is also having quality assurance problems. The US Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits AIU's US degrees, has placed the university and all its world-wide campuses, including London, "on probation" for a year after quality failings were uncovered.

AIU's UK campus also offers UK degrees validated and awarded by the Open University's validation service (OUVS). The QAA audit was restricted to the UK degree courses and UK campus, where around 750 students from 89 countries study.

It is understood that the QAA judgment relates to concerns about the OU's degree validation service, which is responsible for monitoring standards.

The QAA recently reported "limited confidence" in the OUVS's ability to properly safeguard standards.

AIU London indicated this week that the source of its troubles was the OUVS system. It announced that it had ended its contract with the OUVS and will henceforth be validated by London South Bank University instead.

AIU is understood to be considering legal action against the OUVS, blaming it for the damaging judgment. Its lawyers were due to meet OU officials this week. An OU spokesman said it had written to AIU London in December "advising it of our intention to end the accreditation agreements".

If confirmed, the no-confidence judgment would mean that the university becomes the first UK institution to fail under the QAA's current audit regime, and the only institution to fail after more than 100 audits across the sector.

As a private institution, AIU London is not obliged by law to submit to QAA inspection. However, it voluntarily paid its subscription to the QAA and agreed to be subjected to its audits. It is understood that this voluntary status could form the basis of its dispute with the QAA.

A no-confidence vote would normally require the institution to submit a remedial action plan to the QAA within three months of a judgment being published and provide quarterly reports demonstrating how failings are being addressed before a re-inspection.

However, there is no legal basis for the QAA to insist on such action by AIU London.

  • Geoffrey Alderman on QAA auditors' objectivity
    'You can have auditors who are minded to bend over backwards to excuse or play down matters because the institution they are visiting is prestigious' (July 2004)
  • On the QAA's accountability
    'The page (of guidelines) devoted to the QAA's "operational principles and process standards" is insulting in its superficiality' (May 2002)
  • On the £250 million 10-year TQA regime
    'It was an enormous waste of expenditure' (February 2004)
  • On the QAA's requirement that institutions given 'no confidence' votes produce an action plan and quarterly progress reports
    'There is no legal basis on which such demands can be made' (May 2002)

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