High college failure rate places plans for expansion in jeopardy

January 9, 2004

The government's plans to expand higher education through courses delivered in the further education sector were undermined further this week as Yeovil College became the 13th institution to fail an inspection by the Quality Assurance Agency.

The failure, for four engineering courses, means that more than 8 per cent of all college departments providing higher education courses have so far been judged to be failing.

When all university departments were inspected under a similar exercise between 1992 and 2000, less than 1 per cent were found to be failing.

In a report out this week, QAA reviewers say they have "no confidence" in the academic standards on four Higher National Diploma and Certificate courses in engineering at Yeovil.

They say that the programmes lacked explicit educational aims and that staff repeated student assignments "for successive years", increasing the risk of plagiarism; used inconsistent assessment criteria; and failed to second mark work or give adequate feedback.

The failures bring the total number of college departments that have failed QAA inspections under the current academic review system to 13, out of a total of 157 reports (8.2 per cent) so far.

The system, which does not cover English universities after they won a campaign for a lighter regulatory touch in 2000, has so far inspected 236 institutions, including Scottish universities and UK colleges delivering higher education. None of the universities has failed.

The review looks at three aspects of quality (teaching and learning, student progression and learning resources), awarding each aspect one of three judgements: commendable, approved or failing.

Analysis by Roger Cook, academic development officer at Napier University, found that 95 per cent of all judgements given to old universities were "commendable", compared with less than half (46 per cent) for colleges.

College performance was affected by inferior resources, he said.

Mr Cook said: "It's not that the system is picking up that further education is poor at delivering higher-education level work. I think it's much more that further education is structurally under-resourced."

Kel Fiddler, vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, said the figures "raised the question of how the higher education expansion can be accomplished with acceptable quality in further education".

He said that quality should be safeguarded despite the government's expansion drive because the new foundation courses, although delivered in colleges, will all have to be validated and supervised by a university.

Yeovil principal James Hampton accepted the criticism of the engineering courses, but said that the inspection had been carried out eight months ago. The QAA had praised several aspects of the courses and much progress had been made since to address its concerns, he said.

The Association of Colleges said the current review system had never been applied to English universities and was piloted in Scottish universities only, making it impossible to compare provision in the further and higher education sectors.

An AoC spokeswoman said: "We have also pointed out that the academic review system was designed for the larger scale, mainly full-time, academic higher education delivered in universities, rather than for the smaller scale, mainly vocational and often part-time higher education delivered in colleges, and therefore is not an appropriate method for the diverse provision in colleges."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "We expect colleges to work in close partnership with higher education institutions to assure the quality of learning for higher education students, and to reform the overall quality of education and training they provide."

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