Questions have been raised about the ability of the exam board Edexcel to produce quality higher education after an analysis by The Times Higher this week revealed that nine of the 12 departments found to be failing by the Quality Assurance Agency were delivering Edexcel courses.
A week after Edexcel launched almost 100 foundation degrees - a move that will give the body a key role in meeting the government's higher education expansion targets - The Times Higher has found that inspectors from the QAA have judged 19 separate Edexcel courses in nine English colleges to be failing.
"There have been suspicions that there is a problem here, but I had no idea the figures were so damning," said Geoffrey Alderman, academic dean at the American Intercontinental University and a former governor at Newham College, London. Newham was at the centre of a clash between the QAA and Edexcel when the agency failed the college's Edexcel-validated business higher national diploma in 2002.
Christopher Kenyon, QAA chairman, told a committee of MPs at the time of the Newham row that the agency "will continue to monitor the way in which Edexcel courses are validated" after finding it responsible for the Newham failings. Edexcel has since denied that it was subjected to special QAA scrutiny.
Professor Alderman said: "I don't think Edexcel should be validating higher education courses."
The principals of the nine colleges whose Edexcel courses failed inspections were reluctant to discuss the issue.
Yeovil College failed a QAA inspection of its Edexcel-validated engineering higher national certificates and HNDs late last year, while the QAA gave its computing courses, validated by a partner university, a clean bill of health during the same inspection.
James Hampton, Yeovil's principal, made clear in a statement that there was a strong contradiction between the judgement of the QAA and that of Edexcel over the quality of his courses.
"The college has been offering HNCs and HNDs in engineering awarded by Edexcel for more than two decades and has received much good feedback from them over this period," he said. "For example, this year external verifiers' reports for the HNC/D in aerospace engineering and in electronic engineering gave the college a top rating of A for its performance and confirmed that national standards have been met."
He added: "The college notes with satisfaction that Edexcel is working closely with the QAA to raise awareness of mutual standards and approaches."
A spokesman for North Tyneside College, which failed an inspection of an open-learning Edexcel HNC in engineering in 2002, said the college was generally happy with its Edexcel courses.
A spokeswoman for Edexcel said that as the organisation operated in more than three-quarters of colleges in the UK, it was not surprising that some courses were picked up by the QAA.
"The QAA has not specified that Edexcel courses are at issue. Edexcel provides the curriculum and framework for the courses that are run in higher and further education institutions.
"Edexcel has different assessment criteria for higher nationals (qualifications) to the QAA in that we primarily look at outcomes and standards of students' work.
"More than 300 of our trained external examiners look at work done by all students on Edexcel programmes at a centre. Over the past two years, Edexcel has worked with the QAA to develop an approach to quality assurance that articulates with QAA codes of practice and stands alongside best practice in higher education.
"This approach has been implemented in the academic year 2003-04 for all Btec higher education programmes delivered in further education colleges.
Edexcel has no outstanding quality issue with any of the named centres."
The QAA declined to comment on the issue of Edexcel's quality but said a higher failure rate could reflect the higher proportion of Edexcel courses among provision under inspection, which is limited to directly funded college courses.
However, failures in this cycle are at more than 8 per cent, compared with less than 1 per cent in the previous inspection of university courses.
QAA academic review report on computing and engineering at City College Coventry, February 2003:
"The reviewers have no confidence in the standards achieved by the HNC telecommunications engineering programme. Issues include: some mature students feel that some units have little relevance to their workplace needs... the need to ensure the integrity and security of the assessment process; this should include an urgent review of assessment criteria to ensure they provide proper differentiation of grades awarded and comply fully with Edexcel requirements... the assessment data suggest a very high level of achievement, but do not reflect the standards seen by the reviewers in the sample of students' work."
QAA report on computing and engineering at Yeovil College, May 2003:
"The reviewers have no confidence in the standards achieved in engineering programmes... Issues include: the need to develop programme specifications that articulate the distinct educational aims and intended learning outcomes... the need to improve the delivery and assessment of common skills; the need to standardise assessment practice."
QAA report on social policy and social work at South Tyneside College, June 2002:
"The reviewers have no confidence in the academic standards achieved by the programme in early childhood studies... issues include: the curricula, which has yet to establish a clear rationale, pace and coherence; the lack of assessment strategy."
- Four HNC/D courses in engineering at Yeovil College
- An HNC in early childhood studies at South Tyneside College
- An HNC engineering course at North Tyneside College
- Two HNC/D courses in computing and one HNC in engineering at Herefordshire College of Technology
- An HNC telecommunications Engineering programme at City College, Coventry
- Three HNC/D courses in social policy, administration and social work at Carlisle College
- An HNC course in electrical engineering at Bolton Community College
- An HNC/D in building studies at Cornwall College
- Four HNC/Ds in computing at the Calderdale College's Corporation