QAA lambasts Royal Agricultural College

August 20, 2004

From its origins educating the landed gentry under the patronage of Queen Victoria, the Royal Agricultural College has been successfully nurturing the rural economy for more than 150 years.

But its long and prestigious legacy was sullied this week - just three years after the once proudly independent institution accepted government funding and entered the public higher education sector.

With annual teaching grants from the Higher Education Funding Council for England comes the accountability regime, demands for bureaucratic conformity and visits from the inspectors of the Quality Assurance Agency.

The college's first audit by the higher education watchdog, published this week, has been a tough initiation into the modern realities of the academic world.

The QAA has told the college that there can be "limited confidence" only in its academic standards.

In a report set to send shock waves through the Cirencester college's idyllic Cotswold campus, the agency has raised significant questions about its processes for ensuring standards.

The QAA has demanded "essential" action to secure the "management of the the quality of its academic programmes and the academic standards of its awards".

In a report focusing on the college's administrative structures for managing and monitoring academic quality, the QAA says: "The audit team concluded that it is essential for the college to take action to clarify and amend its procedures for the validation, monitoring and review of courses... and to confirm unambiguously the criteria and mechanisms for continuing approval, and possible termination, of courses."

The Royal College, whose president is the Prince of Wales, was established in 1844 and first began awarding degrees, validated by Reading University, in 1984. In 1995 it was granted the power to award its own degrees by the Privy Council. In 2001, it abandoned its private status to accept money from Hefce.

A team of inspectors from the QAA visited the college last December. This week, the agency found that the college's systems for managing and monitoring its quality and standards fell way short of the expectations outlined in the QAA's exhaustive "academic infrastructure", detailing its code of practice, its qualifications framework and programme specifications.

The agency found that the procedures for approving and validating new courses are "silent or limited in a number of key areas".

An academic standards committee, with responsibility for the monitoring and review of standards, according to the QAA "lacks executive authority and, therefore, powers of enforcement".

The college also fails to make use of sufficiently independent outsiders to help monitor standards, asking friends or former staff to sit on panels.

"College staff recognised that, under these circumstances, the independence of the external panel members could be questioned," the report says.

The college also seemed to rely too heavily on the dedication of individual staff, without the backing of solid administrative structures.

"The team believes that, notwithstanding the invaluable work of individual staff on whom the college relies heavily, the college's quality infrastructure is insufficiently developed and systemised to give confidence that it would continue to operate consistently and reliably in the face of any possible future changes in personnel," the QAA says In a prepared statement, the college highlights some positive findings in the report, including a finding that academic standards, where examined, were up to scratch.

"As a new entrant to the public sector, the college welcomes the recognition of its good practice in many of its quality assurance activities, including student liaison and support, in the contributions of relevant professions to its teaching, in the implementation of an effective human resources strategy," it states.

It says that it is "absolutely committed to best practice in its academic quality procedures". It had already started to address the issues raised by the QAA "and is confident of implementing appropriate changes within the required timescale to bring it fully in line with public sector practices".

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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