QAA finds 'weaknesses' at private college with £2 million public funding

A private college paid almost £2 million a year in public student loans has been criticised by the Quality Assurance Agency, despite being cleared of academic fraud.

April 18, 2015

AA Hamilton College, which has around 500 students at three campuses in central London, Wembley and Sheffield, was visited by reviewers at the standards watchdog on three occasions between November and January after an allegation of serious academic malpractice was reported by an anonymous informant.

He told the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that students’ assignments at the college were “manufactured” for payments of £100 and student attendance was lower than 10 per cent.

The complaint was referred to the QAA, which found no evidence to support the claims.

However, in a report carried out under its concerns scheme and published on 17 April, the QAA says its team had “identified a number of significant weaknesses” in areas such as student assessment, monitoring of attendance, admissions, information provided to students and management of quality assurance.

While the college used materials from Pearson, it had not applied to the awarding body for any of its Higher National Certificate or Higher National Diploma certifications since 2011-12, the QAA says. It adds that “no students have successfully completed an HNC or HND award at the college”.

A college spokeswoman told Times Higher Education that it disputed the critical findings and would be happy to demonstrate its robust academic policies.

According to Student Loan Company data published for 2013-14, AA Hamilton received £1.8 million in tuition fee loans, while its student received around £3.3 million in maintenance loans and grants that year.

The QAA says that “some students had been admitted without clearly documented evidence that they have met the college’s entry requirements” and that “records of student performance suggest that many are unable to perform at the required academic level”.

Another area of concern was that “many students progressed from year 1 to year 2 in September 2014 without meeting the college’s formal requirement for progression”, the report says.

“This in turn reinforces fundamental concerns about the ability of many AA Hamilton students to study effectively at higher education level, and to do so in English”, raising concerns about admissions, it adds.

The QAA also notes that “total numbers of students reported to the Student Loans Company

for non-attendance/non-registration/withdrawal are high”.

The QAA concludes the college did not meet the expectations of its Quality Code owing to the “significant number of inconsistencies, inaccuracies and contradictions between and within documents, and between the written and oral evidence seen and heard by the team”.

The QAA suggests 12 separated recommendations and says it will carry out a full Higher Education Review to ensure the college meets expected standards.

In a statement, AA Hamilton College said it had “serious concerns about the way the investigation was conducted, the findings and the process surrounding the circulation and publication of the report” and would lodge a formal complaint about these matters.

It said the QAA had approved its application for specific course designation for the Higher National Diploma in business in January 2014, just seven months before the start of the latest investigation.

Reviewers had said they had confidence in how AA Hamilton manages academic standards, maintains teaching quality and provides accurate information to prospective students about its courses, according to the college’s statement.

No student had yet completed an HND course as its first cohort only began the two-year courses in September 2013 and would graduate this summer, the college’s statement said.

“The college recognises that there is always scope for improvement and is confident that the issues raised by QAA can be addressed to their satisfaction,” the statement added.

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