QAA finds fault with Buckingham

Watchdog criticises lack of oversight at institutional level, reports Melanie Newman

It may have the most satisfied students in the UK and boast a former chief inspector of schools and a string of high-profile education experts among its staff, but the University of Buckingham has fallen foul of the higher education quality watchdog.

In an audit report due for publication after Times Higher Education went to press this week, the Quality Assurance Agency has said that it has only "limited confidence" in the management of academic standards at Buckingham.

Writing in Times Higher Education today, Terence Kealey, the university's vice-chancellor, attacks the Agency for "traducing" its reputation without having visited any classes, laboratories or examinations. He accuses the QAA of promoting "bureaucratic centralisation" which encourages degree inflation and damages collegiality and trust. As a private university, Buckingham is not obliged to undergo audit by the QAA but had volunteered to do so.

The QAA's criticisms focus on a lack of institutional-level oversight of academic and entry standards, appeals and decisions on new courses. The watchdog said the university's external academic advisory council, which oversees academic standards, "has come to see itself as part of the Buckingham academic community".

It found that the university had no committee for the approval of new courses but relied on two external specialists who receive a "checklist" from staff who have proposed new courses, which is then sent to a board of studies and to the learning and teaching committee.

Buckingham argued that "high levels of interpersonal trust existing within a small institution render committees superfluous as forums for debate". But the audit team did not accept this, saying that the "nature of the academic standards judgment being made receives little emphasis". Key academic and resource decisions were made by school-level committees "composed of those with direct delivery interests and with little internal debate" and "central oversight of decision-making is disproportionately light given the weight of the decision".

- Buckingham had only "limited capacity" to assure itself of the academic standards of its awards, the QAA added. "Sufficient instances of serious concerns about academic standards have been flagged by external examiners or advisers to demonstrate the inadequacy of a programme-level approach, particularly at masters level," it says.

Buckingham, which charges £,500 for a full degree programme, has the highest level of student satisfaction in this year's National Student Survey. Its academic staff include Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, and education professor Alan Smithers, a high-profile spokesman on school and university standards.

Geoffrey Alderman, professor of politics and international history at Buckingham, made headlines in June when in his inaugural professorial address at the university, he claimed that a "league-table culture" among vice-chancellors was driving down university standards.

Intelligence expert Anthony Glees last month said he was leaving the state-funded sector, where he claimed academic standards are falling, to join Buckingham.

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