Cambridge in QAA firing line

September 12, 2003

Cambridge University will be criticised for exercising insufficient "vigilance" over degrees awarded in its name when its first quality assurance audit for 11 years is published next month.

According to extracts from a draft report by the Quality Assurance Agency, seen by The THES, the university will be ordered to review its arrangements for monitoring awards offered in partnership with outside bodies "as a matter of high priority".

Although Cambridge will be given a general vote of "broad confidence", the QAA has asked for a number of improvements.

The report, due in mid-October, is seen as a test of the agency's "light-touch" regime. The system is designed to ease the bureaucratic and financial burden on universities by sweeping away universal teaching-quality assessments and replacing them with a system of six-yearly audits, taking a trusting approach to universities with proven track records.

Cambridge has been one of the most vociferous campaigners against excessive external scrutiny. Since an uncomfortable experience of scrutiny in 1992, the university has twice refused to be audited by the QAA, claiming that its international reputation for teaching and research excellence speaks for itself.

The new report will be seen as affirmation of QAA chief executive Peter Williams' mantra that the new quality audit regime is "light touch, but not soft touch". It will highlight the continuing culture clash between the QAA, which is keen to see institutions exercising centralised "corporate control" over awards, and Cambridge, which operates a highly devolved system, delegating responsibility for quality to its faculties and academics.

The draft report warns that there is confusion over the responsibility for Cambridge awards offered in collaboration with other institutions. It says that the university represented one postgraduate award "as an award of the university even though this qualification did not appear on the list of degrees and other awards of the university".

Another postgraduate certificate "to be awarded by another university was being advertised under (the) name of the Cambridge Programme for Industry".

Such problems raise questions about the adequacy of the supervision of collaborative provision by the general board and its education committee on behalf of the university.

"The audit team concluded that the particular vigilance the general board required in respect of the quality assurance of such provision had yet to be exercised," the report says The report recommends that Cambridge should "review, as a matter of high priority, the practices of the general board so as to enable the education committee to receive the information it needs to assure itself that the quality and standards of all those programmes... offered in conjunction with bodies outwith the university, fully meet the requirements of the university for the award of its qualifications".

A spokesman for Cambridge University said: "The report is only in draft form at the moment. The draft is overwhelmingly positive but until the QAA publishes, we can't comment on specifics."

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