Innocence amid TVU slaughter

July 23, 1999

Thames Valley may have had problems with its management, but Geoffrey Alderman is unconvinced by attacks on its academic record

In the summer of 1997 the Quality Assurance Agency undertook a special review of Thames Valley University, focusing on the ways in which TVU claimed it assured the academic quality and standards of its educational provision. The review followed revelations the previous year based on certain external examiners' reports that had been leaked to The Sunday Times.

The publication of the special review has had profound repercussions, not only on TVU but on the entire higher education sector. For example, the shadow of TVU loiters ominously over the confidential advice that the QAA gave to the government earlier this year, relating to the criteria for the conferment (and, by implication, the withdrawal) of degree-awarding powers and university titles.

It is the duty of the historian to destroy myth. And in my view, as a historian, a myth has developed about TVU. The myth, emanating from the QAA's review, seeks to link a comprehensive failure of management (which few would, I think, deny) to the alleged dumbing down of academic standards. "Severe shortcomings" in management information at TVU resulted in unacceptable lapses in quality and quantity of information generated in respect of student registrations, timetables, room allocations and, most critically, assessments.

According to the QAA, there was at TVU a lack of rigour in the assessment management system , which was "inherently unstable". This resulted in "a very tiny" number of students receiving degree classes higher than they should have.

A failure of an assessment management regime is deplorable and I would not defend any system in which even a tiny number of students obtained better awards than they were entitled to. But let us put this into perspective. I understand that the number of students involved was less than half a dozen.

In the mythology of "dumbing down", TVU has been demonised. As a historian I look at the facts. Remarkably, the TVU special report is short on hard evidence and, even more remarkably, its authors chose not to derive any of their judgements from the QAA's own teaching inspection reports. Between 1995 and 1997 TVU underwent four inspections by QAA subject reviewers. In two of these (sociology and linguistics) it achieved aggregate scores of 22 points, scores that even by Daily Telegraph standards equate with excellence. In the other two (modern languages and American studies) the scores were 18 and 15 respectively: hardly inspiring,but still "quality approved" under the QAA's own criteria.

The special review omitted any consideration of these subject reviews. It did, however, devote three paragraphs to TVU's international activities, citing Higher Education Quality Council and QAA overseas audit reports relating to programmes delivered in Poland and India, concluding that these "suggested that the university's oversight of the partnerships was less than fully rigorous, and that the monitoring of the quality and standards of the programmes concerned was largely informal".

I have read far worse overseas audit reports, some of which have recently made media headlines. Indeed, I have read some "continuation audit" reports, all relating to "old" universities, that paint pictures at least as depressing as that painted in the review of TVU.

Why has there not been a clamouring for their blood, as there was for the blood of TVU?

My conclusion is that the plight that TVU found itself in was traceable to systemic faults in its management, for which its then vice-chancellor paid the ultimate price. But I have seen no evidence, nor does the special review cite any, that academic standards were in fact lowered as a result.

Geoffrey Alderman is pro vice-chancellor (quality and standards), Middlesex University.

Was Thames Valley University demonised?

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