Mismanagement of a multimillion-pound Israeli operation by the University of Derby has damaged the reputation and interests of United Kingdom higher education, a minister has declared after a critical inquiry report.
The Quality Assurance Agency's report, published today, more than a year after a THES investigation first highlighted the problem, says that Derby's partnership with Inter College was formed "with insufficient care and prudence". It was run in a way that "did not secure the quality and standards of programmes offered".
It says that after disturbing events in 1997 and 1998, the operation has improved greatly since a restructure prompted by Israeli regulators and is now "on a sounder footing".
The inquiry confirmed THES reports that the university had "disregarded" its own agreed entry requirements. It found "serious weaknesses" in the control of admissions, which "risked the integrity" of the university's degrees. One student with no academic qualifications was able to obtain a BA honours degree in just a year. Some students were admitted without proficiency in English, an entry requirement.
Because of "possibly systematically" weak controls, Inter College "accepted a number of applicants with 'non-standard' qualifications without authorisation", the QAA says. "The university disputes that the entry requirements were changed, but the team is not persuaded by its arguments," the QAA says.
The QAA inquiry also found that a cohort of students had been recruited to a BA course before the university had approved it and that, contrary to "good practice", judgements about the appropriateness of some students' entry requirements had been made after enrolment.
The QAA concludes that the operations were set up "with insufficient care and prudence". The link was set up and approved too quickly, with "inadequate" and sometimes "incomplete and inaccurate" documentation. Responsibility for the programme lay on too few shoulders, the activity expanded too rapidly, and "considerable responsibility was given to staff of an Israeli organisation that had very limited experience of the requirements and values of UK higher education".
The report says: "It is fortunate, perhaps surprising, that no greater problems were experienced than those that have been considered here".
QAA chief executive John Randall said: "There is a clear lesson for the sector here. I have always said, and this is a general point, that the reputation of the UK in any country can be badly damaged by the behaviour of a single institution."
A spokesman for Baroness Blackstone, the higher education minister, said:
"It is critical to the reputation of UK higher education overseas that Derby completes without delay the improvements recommended in the report. All universities and colleges must take careful note of this report, which has general lessons about the running of overseas operations."
The inquiry was set up at Derby's invitation after pressure from the secretary of state for education, David Blunkett, who was lobbied by lecturers' union Natfhe. Its agreed remit was to examine four specific allegations made by Natfhe. Although the QAA strayed significantly from its remit to make more general criticisms of mismanagement and to address the issues raised in The THES, two of the four original allegations were found to have "no foundation". The QAA says the other two were only partly founded. The director of the Derby programmes in Israel was cleared of pressuring staff to pass sub-standard essays.
The inquiry was hampered by conflicting accounts of events and, in some cases, a lack of documentary evidence, the QAA says. Staff at the Derby Business School, which set up the operation, regularly attacked the senior management's account of events and vice versa.
A Derby University spokesman said the report showed that the university "had no case to answer in relation to malpractice on any of the principal charges. Crucially, the report finds no evidence to support the central misconception that the university either deliberately reduced standards or that it has made any concessions to quality in order to increase its revenue from foreign students" The report did not examine the university's compliance with recent Israeli laws governing overseas education providers. Israeli regulators said Derby was not complying with several laws and, in early 1999, denied it a licence to operate under the new rules. The university has until November to meet the law.
Natfhe's local branch has called on Derby vice-chancellor Roger Waterhouse to resign.
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