LJMU panel discredited

October 1, 1999

Liverpool John Moores University has refused to release the report of an inquiry into complaints that students were given "totally incorrect" teaching material. But six months after Whistleblowers drew attention to the problem, the university has accepted that the material on the basics of human respiration was "confusing".

Nevertheless, LJMU said this week that an independent review panel has concluded that there is no evidence that any student "graduated with an erroneous understanding" of the information. But The THES has learned that the three-member panel included at least two academics with little or no relevant specialist knowledge. And this week one of them admitted that he had actively avoided the panel's remit.

In March we reported the teaching material had been criticised by several independent experts - including a respiratory expert from the Physiological Society - as "totally incorrect", "misleading" and "outmoded".

This week the university confirmed that a review panel has accepted that the material in question could cause "possible confusion" and that "there was likely to be continuing debate" about its wording. While students had been protected from graduating with incorrect information, this was only through "the accompanying lectures" and the fact that when problems were identified, "the material was carefully discussed with the students". LJMU said the material had not been used since 1997-98.

Overall, however, the panel said there is "no reason to believe that the academic and professional standards ... was (sic) compromised in any way" and that "there is no evidence that any student graduated with an erroneous understanding of this information". The university said it had been "cleared from the accusation that students were graduating with a flawed understanding of teaching material".

But confusion remains over the panel's work. A spokesman for lecturers' union Natfhe - which has been involved in an internal disciplinary hearing over the material - said this week that "we have no way of knowing if the report is valid if it is not being made public". The panel was originally asked to "consider the accuracy and appropriateness of the material given to students" for a single practical called "Control of Respiration", part of a human physiology unit for degrees in the biomedical sciences.

This week panel member David Rogers, dean of science at Portsmouth University, said: "I didn't address that issue specifically. I'm not a respiratory physiologist. I can't comment on what may or may not have been a fault. There was some disagreement over (the material), but I just didn't enter that debate at all."

However, Professor Rogers said: "I was convinced that at the end of the day I don't think students suffered." The other panel members - the chair Jennifer Latto, the university's provost, and Gerry McKenna, who becomes vice chancellor of Ulster University today - declined to comment. Professor McKenna is a biomedical scientist and he has professional links to LJMU's school of biomolecular sciences. Professor Latto is an educationist.

The teaching material controversy follows a critical audit by the Quality Assurance Agency, published last month, which found improvements since a damning audit in 1993, but raised further problems.

The auditors found that information given to staff and students was not always "up to date and accurate", with figures published in a prospectus "seriously discrepant" from other published statistics. It also said that the university cannot "be confident that it is consistently aware of staff concerns and attitudes". The QAA team made the very rare judgement that communications improvements are "necessary". Want to blow the whistle? Contact Phil Baty on 0171 782 3298 or email him on phil.baty@newsint.co.uk

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