QAA finding on London 'perverse'

February 3, 2006

Members of the University of London have launched a rearguard action against academic watchdogs for publishing a critical audit of the university.

The university's institutions, some of which are universities in their own right, declared "consternation" at the "perverse outcome" of the inspectors' report, published this week. It expresses "limited confidence"

in the University of London's ability to guarantee the quality of degrees awarded by member institutions.

The fallout exposed a fundamental rift between the university's leaders and officials at the Quality Assurance Agency over the role of the federal university.

Most heads of institutions believe the regulator failed to understand how the University of London worked. They pointed to the clean bill of health the QAA gave the university's 20 institutions in separate audits. Some have even privately questioned whether the QAA's audit had been a waste of public funds.

Adrian Smith, principal of Queen Mary, said: "The perverse outcome of the QAA process applied to the federal University of London merely serves to demonstrate its unsuitability for - and the QAA's lack of understanding of the nature of - the federal university."

Stephen Hill, principal of Royal Holloway, said: "I wonder whether the QAA has fully understood the nature of a federal university. I would be delighted to be reassured that the QAA's template is capable of coping with a different sort of university system."

Colin Bundy, principal of the School of Oriental and African Studies, said:

"This does seem a perplexing finding. The colleges collectively share the view that there does seem to be something inconsistent."

The five auditors gave a "limited confidence" judgment in part because they discovered that the University of London had been unaware that a foundation degree course at Birkbeck had been criticised in the past by the QAA.

The report states: "Only limited confidence can be placed in the soundness of the present and likely future management by the university, as a corporate institution, of its specific responsibilities as an awarding body."

But the auditors write that "broad confidence" can be placed in individual colleges' management of academic standards and the quality of programmes.

The QAA auditors want the University of London to have a better grasp of the courses it is putting its name to.

The university is reluctant to interfere in overseeing the quality of degrees. It said this was the responsibility of its member institutions, which would be highly unlikely to allow the central university administration, based in Senate House, to interfere further in their affairs.

Sir Graeme Davies, vice-chancellor of the University of London, promised to ensure that the university was more prompt in checking information on its member institutions. But he refused to put in place any of the other recommendations by the auditors.

He said: "The recommendations would impose an additional costly and unnecessary layer of quality assurance bureaucracy on the autonomous colleges. We would be merely duplicating arrangements. I'm at a loss to see how that adds value."

It is unlikely that the QAA will find this acceptable. Peter Williams, its chief executive, said: "We expect the university to provide an action plan in the normal way and we do not think it should be difficult, or lead to extra bureaucracy, for the university to ensure that its colleges are exercising their delegated powers in ways that safeguard the standards and quality of the university's own degrees. At present, the university has no way of knowing this other than through QAA's infrequent audits."

jessica.shepherd@thes.co.uk


COLLEGE VIEWS

  • "Our view is that the colleges of the University of London have been given a judgment of broad confidence by the QAA."
  • David Latchman, master of Birkbeck
  • "Ithink that this report will just serve to accentuate the increasing impetus behind the common desires of the University of London and its constituent colleges."
  • Phil Whitfield, vice-principal of King's College London
  • "We are all dismayed by this dispute between the QAA and the University of London."

Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London

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