The University of Plymouth wants to keep secret the report of its investigation into allegations about England’s biggest for-profit college, where Plymouth validates degrees, claiming that its release would cause “adverse effects”.
In November 2017, the BBC’s Panorama programme aired allegations that a freelance recruitment agent contracted by the college, GSM London, had helped an “undercover student” to buy assignments – with “good marks” for the coursework “ratified” by Plymouth, according to the BBC. Plymouth then said that it would hold “a full and independent investigation”.
In response to a Freedom of Information request from Times Higher Education seeking a copy of the investigation report, Plymouth said that it was being “withheld from disclosure” on grounds including “commercial interest”.
“The university considers that disclosure of the requested information would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of both itself and its partner college, GSM London,” Plymouth said in its response. “The adverse effects of the Panorama programme would be likely to be repeated, impacting on both institutions, their staff and students.”
Matt Waddup, the University and College Union’s head of policy and campaigns, criticised the decision. “You don’t hold a full and independent investigation and then sit on the results because you don’t like what it found,” he said.
“This whole episode, and Plymouth’s inadequate response to it, will rightly raise more issues than it addresses and highlights the risks associated with these types of private companies circling the higher education market.”
Last year, THE reported that the Department for Education had granted permission for GSM students to continue accessing public student loans despite knowing the extent of its financial problems following a fall in student numbers after the Panorama programme. Early last year, there were fears that the college could collapse into administration, but GSM eventually agreed a turnaround plan with its owners in which £26 million of its debt was waived.
A separate report, by the Quality Assurance Agency, refers to the college’s own “external review” and a “separate investigation by the university leading to recent additional measures to counter contract cheating”.
GSM – owned by Clipper Group, which is in turn majority-owned by the private equity firm Sovereign Capital – has seen its student numbers fall from 8,656 to 5,065 in one year, the QAA report reveals.
The QAA monitoring visit report, part of the standard process for designation for loan funding, finds that GSM, which focuses on students from low-participation backgrounds, is making “acceptable progress”.
On the fall in student numbers, the “college attributes this decrease in part to new academic regulations and other measures to address issues of lack of academic progress by students at an earlier point than in previous years”, it adds.
“The college recognises that its overall completion rates are persistently below the sector average, with the percentage of students achieving their degree on time or within one additional year ranging from 28-46 per cent for cohorts who started their studies in 2011-2013,” the QAA also says.
A GSM spokeswoman said that the higher education sector “as a whole” was “facing challenges related to plagiarism and contract cheating”.
“As recognised by the QAA, we are committed to tackling this and have already implemented a college-wide campaign to promote academic integrity and are active contributors to wider sector campaigns on this issue,” she said.
A Plymouth spokesman said that the university was “satisfied with the outcome of the review and the resultant report”.