QAA concerned as institutions fail to publish critical views of courses. Phil Baty reports.
Universities are censoring almost all criticism of course quality from the examiners' reports they are required to publish to help students choose where to study, say quality watchdogs.
They are providing so little information that the public reports have become almost useless, the Quality Assurance Agency has concluded.
The publication of summaries of external examiners' reports on the quality of all university courses had been a key plank of a government drive to make universities more accountable and to improve the information available to potential students, ahead of the introduction of top-up fees.
But in a review of the so-called teaching quality information (TQI) system, under which summaries of externals' reports are published online alongside a vast amount of data on course quality, the QAA has highlighted a series of problems.
The agency found that while universities were meeting the requirement to publish examiners' simple "yes/no" answers to questions on course quality, they were largely failing to provide any additional comments by the examiners.
"Although this does not mean that the examiners' report summaries were inaccurate, it made it impossible to assess their integrity or frankness... and severely reduced the level of useful information available to the TQI user," the QAA says in the report. In addition, where commentary was provided, the QAA says that it was "almost solely" used to highlight points of good practice and "hardly ever" to report areas of genuine concern or suggestions for improvement that had appeared in the external examiners' report.
"This... meant that it was hard for the reader to gain a balanced impression of the examiners' overall view of what they were examining," the QAA says.
The problems were highlighted last year by The Times Higher . External examiners for pharmacy courses at De Montfort University said in a letter obtained by The Times Higher that they "deplored" an "inappropriate and improper" decision in 2004 to upgrade pharmacy degree students by up to 14 per cent after too many had failed.
But the summary of externals' reports published on the TQI website for this course contained no criticism at all.
The QAA also found confusion regarding who was responsible for writing the summaries of externals' reports, which raised questions about their integrity.
"In some instances, the external examiners themselves took direct responsibility for writing the summary... In contrast, there were also examples where the summary was written by the institution itself," the QAA report says.
The report says it is important to consider how institutions verify the accuracy, integrity and frankness of the finished summaries before they publish them.
It says: "Who writes, revises, and signs off summaries determines what, and in what form, information is included. In most cases it is not so much a question of the accuracy of the summaries, since these do not show any real errors of fact, but more of their integrity and frankness - as different authors and authorities will have different concerns and interests in relation to the uses ultimately made of TQI."