One-size-fits-all quality system ‘forces private colleges to lie’

Senior QAA reviewer claims it is unfair to compare alternative providers to universities when they charge different fees

November 1, 2017
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One size: ‘trying to make every programme fit the same template’ is unfair on alternative providers, argues Peter Green

A senior academic standards assessor has hit out at England’s “one-size-fits-all” quality system, claiming that it forces staff at alternative providers to fabricate evidence for inspections.

In an extraordinary attack on the review method operated by the Quality Assurance Agency, Peter Green, who has undertaken numerous reviews for the standards watchdog, said that the current system was forcing staff at alternative providers to commit “intentional and deliberate” misrepresentation to pass their inspections.

Writing in a journal published by London Churchill College, of which he is principal, Mr Green said that it was unfair for alternative providers to be “judged [against] the same benchmarks” as the university sector when they could not charge more than £6,165 a year in tuition fees. Universities can charge up to £9,250.

“No consideration or mitigating circumstances are offered to account for a £3,000 per student fee-income deficit compared to the universities,” writes Mr Green in the paper, “QAA Reviews: Fact or Fabrication”, which was published recently in the Journal of Contemporary Development and Management Studies.

Given the “scarce resources” within alternative providers and the unrealistic expectation that they will achieve university-level results, “academics are fabricating outcomes, presenting a public image of institutional wellbeing to achieve funding [and] course accreditation”, explains Mr Green, whose Whitechapel-based college is accredited by the University of Bedfordshire.

“These are necessary behaviours for alternative providers to survive,” he adds, likening the situation to the “criminal [who] will lie under oath to avoid conviction”, he says.

“For institutional management and academics alike, published evidence of poor performance has to be avoided at all costs,” Mr Green explains.

Commenting on the claims, Will Naylor, the QAA’s director of colleges and alternative providers, stated that Mr Green’s “personal views bear no resemblance to QAA’s extensive experience” and said that he had provided “no corroborative evidence to back up his assertions”.

“We review these providers against the same nationally agreed standards that we expect of all higher education providers in the UK, as set out in the UK Quality Code for Higher Education,” added Mr Naylor, who said that the fact that 16 per cent of alternative providers reviewed since 2014 had faced failing judgements “belie[d] Mr Green’s suggestion that reviews are easy to fabricate”.

Arguing for a “root and branch overhaul” of the current “big bang system”, in which a negative rating can quickly lead to institutional closure, Mr Green claims that a new model that stresses “continuous development” and in which “successful outcomes [are] guaranteed with both parties working together” would lead to more honest assessments of quality.

Instead, staff at alternative providers are simply “’well trained before an important validation”, and “passing the QAA [assessment] is all about learning the lines and practising them until competent”, Mr Green says. “It is an exercise for parrots,” he concludes.

In a statement to Times Higher Education, Mr Green said that his paper represented an “insider’s viewpoint” and drew on similar concerns expressed privately by other reviewers.

Insisting that he had followed QAA rules “to the letter” while acting as a reviewer, and making clear that he thought that all the reviewers he had worked with had also “acted professionally…to deliver proportionate and reasonable findings”, he nonetheless declared that he felt the current system was “stacked against alternative providers”.

By “trying to make every programme fit the same template…the QAA is constantly trying to provide evidence of a level playing field that exists only in fiction in order to satisfy government”, Mr Green said.

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Reader's comments (1)

The contention here is: (1) adherence to a single Quality Code should not be expected of private providers on the basis that the maximum fee they can charge is lower. Aside for the fact that there are publicly funded providers (particularly further education colleges) who are charging lower fees, this is incoherent. The Quality Code does not make demands that cannot be met with a £6,000 fee. (2) that (some) private colleges are actually not meeting the Quality Code but telling untruths which the QAA’s reviewers are unable to detect. It would be interesting to know the basis for this assertion. Perhaps Mr Green should submit his evidence to HEFCE under their Unsatisfactory Quality Scheme, as I’m sure they’d be interested to hear. Unless of course there would be a conflict of interest with his college’s shareholders! Whether providers are private, public, for-profit or charitable, the notion that students should be protected to the same minimum standards seems fairly uncontentious. The current Quality Code is arguably imperfect and is under review, and the assessment process will doubtless go through further evolution, but the idea that there should be a lesser threshold to allow some institutions an easy life seems unacceptable.

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