Kingston University has clashed with the quality watchdog over a report that says the institution is close to bursting point and that measures to deal with student numbers through virtual learning are unrealistic.
In an audit report on the university published this week, the Quality Assurance Agency reveals concerns about courses at "full stretch", with students complaining that one campus is "at capacity" and its facilities are "overused".
The university has been hugely successful, recording a 20 per cent rise in student numbers over the past five years. It does not contest the QAA's concerns about student numbers.
But the QAA provoked an angry response from Kingston after casting doubt on its plans to use computer-based e-learning - through its pioneering virtual learning environment (VLE) - to help deliver teaching and relieve pressure on facilities.
While not intended to replace face-to-face teaching, the VLE enables students to access learning materials from home.
In its official response to the QAA report, Kingston says: "We are very strongly of the view that the parts of the report that consider the university's approach to e-learning and the relatively recent introduction of a university-wide virtual learning environment to support and enhance learning (not necessarily to replace face-to-face teaching) are not a true reflection of the excellent work being done."
The QAA audit report gives Kingston an overall vote of "broad confidence" in its ability to maintain its own quality and standards.
However, the agency advises the university to "continue to monitor and develop its learning resources, particularly the availability of and use of appropriate space, to match the growth in student numbers".
Almost 18,000 students are registered on Kingston courses. The QAA says: "An increase in student numbers continues to be an essential element of the university's plans."
Those plans include moves to attract more full fee-paying overseas students.
But the agency reports that there are concerns about stretched resources and facilities.
"Students had some criticisms concerning computer access, the range of up-to-date books, opening hours to accommodate full-time and part-time students, the effect of higher student numbers, study space and the availability of multiple copies of main texts," the audit report says.
And, while the QAA says it is satisfied that "most, and possibly all" of the issues are being addressed, it says "the impression was gained that the effective use of space and the rising number of students was a continuing challenge".
A key way of meeting this challenge, according to Kingston's strategic plan, is to increase the use of e-learning and, in particular, to ensure that by 2005-06 at least three quarters of modules make active use of the VLE "to enrich traditional forms of delivery".
But the QAA suggests that the target may be overambitious, given a lack of focus by the university.
The report says that staff and students in the faculty of art who met the audit team "expressed apprehension concerning the value of the VLE".
It says that it is unclear how Kingston will meet the target, "while its associated staff development, take-up and post-staff development support appears to be optional".
The QAA says: "In subject areas where VLE was well established, students were uniformly enthusiastic about its use as an enrichment of traditional teaching and learning. Some disciplines were less well advanced and some made no use of VLE as a support for learning.
"The team developed the view, through discussion with staff and students, that achievements resulted from the enthusiasm of individual staff, rather than a co-ordinated and consistent approach sponsored by the university.
"Under these circumstances, the team felt that it was unclear how the target will be achieved and would encourage the university to consider how it could reduce the gap between target and actual results."
Kingston replied, in an official response published as an annex to the QAA's report, that 1,800 of the 2,000 undergraduate course modules used the VLE, which had about 150,000 "hits" a day.
"To describe use of a VLE as patchy implies criticism when the reality is that the strategy is pedagogically sound.
"The report indicated that voluntary staff development might not have been appropriate, which ignores the fact that compulsion is not necessary in a well-planned strategy," the university added.