A review of a UK university by the sector’s quality watchdog will remain secret and unpublished, with no second review taking place, after the institution successfully appealed against the report.
The shelving of the Quality Assurance Agency’s review of Plymouth University means that the institution’s most recent published review dates back to 2009, and it is this that has been relied on to support Plymouth’s entry into the teaching excellence framework, Times Higher Education understands. Under the first phase of the TEF, institutions with a successful QAA review are permitted to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation from this autumn.
QAA reviewers carried out a higher education review visit to Plymouth in May 2016. Under normal circumstances, an institution whose review is set aside on appeal will undergo a fresh review under the same method, as happened in a similar case involving the University of Southampton.
However, as higher education review was discontinued in summer 2016, being replaced with “light touch” annual provider reviews based on student outcome metrics and assurances from governing bodies, there will be no second QAA visit to Plymouth.
The case may raise concerns about the ability of the QAA to defend its judgements against institutions seeking to protect their reputations from negative findings in an increasingly competitive higher education sector.
The reasons why Plymouth challenged the review remain a closely guarded secret, even within the institution.
There is no evidence to suggest that the review touched on the senior management turmoil at Plymouth, but the university had experienced a testing spell prior to the review.
In July 2014, Wendy Purcell, who was the university’s vice-chancellor at the time, was suspended by retired judge William Taylor, who was chair of governors at that point.
Subsequently, allegations emerged that he had sexually harassed female students and members of staff. Mr Taylor, who denies the allegations, stepped down from his role in September 2014.
Professor Purcell returned to work as vice-chancellor in November 2014, but left the post to become president on 1 January 2015. Her post as president then “ceased” on 31 December 2015.
Judith Petts, formerly pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise at Southampton, took over as vice-chancellor at Plymouth in February 2016.
A Plymouth spokesman said that the review had been “set aside in its entirety by the Quality Assurance Agency as part of its normal processes”.
“In view of the changes to the regulatory structure for higher education quality assurance, there will be no further higher education review and no finalised report,” the spokesman said. “The university is fully engaged with the new quality assurance system – annual provider review – and the teaching excellence framework.”
The QAA’s document on 2014 revisions to its appeals procedure states that previously it had “published both the grounds on which an appeal was made, and whether or not the appeal was successful”.
But this had “the risk of being misleading if, for example, only one of a number of grounds of appeal was successful, and could potentially lead to prejudice if it is made publicly known that an institution has been required to appeal a decision before securing an effective review”, the QAA says. So as of 1 January 2014, “no details or information about individual appeals will be published”, it adds.
The QAA declined to comment on the Plymouth case.