Students without standard qualifications were required to complete only a 100-word statement to be enrolled on to a higher education course offered by a further education college, a critical report by the Quality Assurance Agency says.
The review of the Higher National Certificate in business (management) offered by Sussex Coast College Hastings via distance learning was carried out after concerns were raised by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The launch of the course in July 2014, in partnership with a private company called Acquire Learning, contributed to a significant increase in the number of higher education students enrolled at the college, as well as a sharp rise in part-time student recruitment, where numbers grew from 144 to 648 in the space of six months.
The review says that a “poor” retention rate of between 31 and 48 per cent was the result of the college not being effective in identifying students “with a suitable profile likely to facilitate their successful completion of the programme”.
“This was considered by the team to be particularly so with regard to non-standard entrants who, in the absence of standard entry qualifications, are only required to complete a 100-word statement,” the report says. “In the view of the team this is not a sufficiently robust assessment tool.”
The investigation found that delays in the registration of most students with the awarding organisation, Pearson, meant that learners were not guaranteed a qualification at the end of their course. This amounted to a “fundamental breach of the awarding organisation’s requirements”, the review says.
In addition, the review says that there had been a “lack of formality” associated with the monitoring of the agreement with Acquire Learning, which acts as a recruitment agency and provides support to students during their course.
The investigation found that the college failed to meet two of the expectations of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education: managing higher education with others, and recruitment, selection and admission to higher education.
The report concludes that the distance learning programme had been developed “with unwarranted haste”.
“The decision to recruit to a programme at such a rapid rate, to a course mode of which it has little experience was not advisable and would have been better managed through a more carefully planned and staged introduction,” it says.
The review makes eight recommendations.
Clive Cooke, the principal and chief executive of Sussex Coast College Hastings, said the institution had “already addressed many of the concerns raised”.
“The college is working very closely with QAA, Pearson and Hefce to address the recommendations and has already submitted an action plan with the aim to implement all recommendations by the end of the academic year,” he said.
“A visit from Pearson at the end of last month has already shown significant improvements and the college is confident that the approach taken will resolve the initial concerns quickly.”