Teaching material for students studying human physiology at Liverpool John Moores University is so flawed and misleading that experts have dismissed it as "incorrect", "inadequate" and "outmoded".
The material, which has been obtained by The THES, is in a hand-out designed to teach human physiology students the basics of respiration. One academic said it was so confusing it could lead some students to believe that all fish had lungs.
Alan Findlay, director of pre-clinical education and chairman of the faculty board of biology at the University of Cambridge, said the hand-out was "totally incorrect" in many respects. "Students have been presented with statements that are so fundamentally wrong that the objectives of the class - to understand the chemical and physical factors implicated in the control of respiratory movements in man - cannot possibly be met."
A respiratory expert and member of the Physiological Society, who did not want to be named and who did not know the university concerned when he assessed the material, said the case highlighted the problems typical in universities where teaching is divorced from up-to-date research. He said the accuracy and interpretation of the material was subject to academic debate, but the material was "inadequate and misleading" and not of an appropriate level for students on medicine-related courses.
He said that practical experiments required of students, and the equipment involved, were "outmoded", but might reflect limited teaching resources. The controversy will fuel accusations that academic standards are falling as the government pushes to widen participation.
Liverpool John Moores announced this week that it was to establish a formal academic panel to review the material. It declined to comment on the number of students that had used it. But it is understood that it has been used in a study unit as part of modular degrees in biomedical science, biochemistry, microbiology and applied biology and taught to about 500 students over at least three years.
The university's vice-chancellor, Peter Toyne, said he was "deeply concerned" about the criticisms, but that he was confident that "our robust quality assurance procedures will result in the matter being resolved".
A spokesman for the university said that the issue was "entirely a matter of academic and professional judgement". The problems had already come to light as part of a grievance case from a member of staff.
Following The THES's findings, the vice-chancellor has agreed to a formal academic review panel, "to resolve the differences in academic opinion".