QAA delivers thumbs down to foundation degree trio

Report's findings of 'no confidence' in the standards on three courses further tarnish flagship scheme. Phil Baty reports

Quality watchdogs have uncovered a host of failures on foundation degree courses, dealing a further blow to the reputation of the Government's flagship two-year qualification.

The Quality Assurance Agency this month declared that it had "no confidence" in standards on three foundation degree courses provided by London Metropolitan University, Bournemouth University and Southampton Solent University.

Among the failings the agency highlights are: overgenerous marking; serious student errors not spotted and corrected by markers; cursory or inadequate feedback to students (in one case with a seven-month delay); failure to invoke correct procedures for academic malpractice; and courses that have not provided sufficient "academic challenge" or enough rigour to allow progression to degree level.

The latest verdicts - following on the heels of similar recent judgments delivered against foundation degrees at Coventry and London South Bank universities - will damage the increasingly fragile reputation of foundation degrees, which were launched in 2001.

The Government hoped that the qualifications would widen access to higher education, provide more vocationally oriented courses and help increase student numbers. Universities UK, the vice-chancellors' body, has indicated that it will raise concerns about the high number of failing foundation degrees with the QAA.

In its report on London Met, the QAA says it had "no confidence" in the "emerging academic standards and emerging achievements of students" or in "the quality of learning opportunities provided for students" on a performing arts foundation degree.

The QAA report says that the programme was not able to "provide students with a sufficient basis in academic knowledge and critical and analytical skills to succeed" at honours degree level.

From a sample of 12 assessments checked by the QAA, "the reviewers identified problems with the standard of written work in eight of the samples and over-marking in a further two modules".

Students were also unable to access key course texts because there were no library facilities on the site where the degree was being taught.

The QAA also says it had "no confidence in the academic standards and achievements of students" on Bournemouth University's equine studies foundation degree.

Reviewers said that about one third of the assignments they examined "lack the necessary academic challenge" required. They found "cases, in the internal moderation of student work... where neither first nor second marker had identified significant factual errors in the student work". These errors "remained uncorrected".

Despite Bournemouth having clear procedures for dealing with academic maladministration and malpractice, "the reviewers' scrutiny of documentation and discussion with staff indicated a number of instances where these procedures have not been fully implemented".

The reviewers "found problems" in nine of twelve course units examined. "In five units, the student work did not achieve the standard required, and in a further four the reviewers judged that the work has been marked generously," the QAA says.

Meanwhile, on the computer studies foundation degree at Southampton Institute (now Southampton Solent University), the QAA says that a virtual learning environment had largely failed. The reviewers found "failure in some key areas of electronic communication and support, which has seriously undermined the studies' distance-learning experience".

The university conceded that it had "overrelied" on part-time staff, which had led to "problems with routine communication". Students "reported delays of up to seven months in the return of assignments".

Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell said that, as the qualification was relatively new and because it involved "complex partnerships, you would expect there to be a learning curve".

But Mr Rammell added that the vast majority of courses were very successful and he stressed that the Government was "firmly committed" to the qualification. Up to 50,000 people were expected to be taking the courses by next year.

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