QAA links quality faults to cash flow

February 27, 2004

One in three students drops out of degree courses at further education colleges, quality watchdogs have found. Overworked staff, badly stocked libraries and high student dropout rates are among the problems continuing to blight the quality of higher education courses in colleges.

In a report that will raise further questions about government plans to expand higher education largely through courses delivered in the so-called Cinderella sector, the Quality Assurance Agency will next week highlight a series of quality problems linked to the relative lack of resources in further education.

The report, seen by The Times Higher , outlines the findings of the first 153 inspections of colleges delivering higher-level courses and will show:

* Almost 8 per cent of courses delivered in colleges are failing, compared with 0.5 per cent found to be failing in a similar inspection for the university sector

* Some college courses suffer from dropout rates of up to a third, and more than 40 per cent of college departments inspected have problems with student retention

* A third of libraries need to update and review their stock to "provide appropriate support for the higher education courses offered"

* Overworked staff are not able to dedicate time to higher education work or their scholarship.

The report Learning from Higher Education in Further Education Colleges in England is designed to share "good practice" among colleges delivering higher education.

It concludes that "overall there is much good practice" and "students in general have a high-quality experience, with dedicated and enthusiastic staff, and appropriate learning resources".

But problems with resources are hitting student achievement. "Many reviews show that student retention rates are satisfactory, however, just over 40 per cent of reports note difficulties with retention," the QAA says.

"On some full-time courses, for example in computing and law, up to one-third of students leave their studies prematurely, usually in the first year."

The report confirms research from The Times Higher last summer showing that the overall failure rate of the current inspection system, which concentrates on courses in colleges, after universities won a reprieve from full inspection in 2001, is running at almost 8 per cent.

The inspection reports cover standards, delivering one of three judgements - no confidence, limited confidence and confidence. They also cover quality, again delivering one of three judgements - failing, commendable and approved.

Of the 153 inspections in ten subject areas, covering almost 12,000 full-time-equivalent students, 92 per cent were given a clean bill of health for standards. Some 4.3 per cent were given an outright "no confidence" vote in the standards of their courses, while a further 3.3 per cent were given "no confidence" judgements for the standards of at least some of the courses inspected.

The 8 per cent failure rate compares with 0.5 per cent failures in the nine-year teaching quality inspection exercise, which covered university and college departments.

Although the QAA is not explicit, the inspections highlighted financial issues. While 58 per cent of college departments attracted a commendable judgement for the quality of student progression and 59 per cent for the quality of teaching and learning, just 39 per cent earned the coveted commendable judgement for the quality of "learning resources", including staff-to-student ratios.

The report highlights staffing problems related to resources. It says:

"Reviewers found examples in all subjects of full-time staff with heavy and demanding teaching loads that impact unfavourably on aspects of their higher education work. In these cases there is less opportunity for scholarship, research and staff development."

An overreliance on part-time and agency staff in the field of computing was also observed.

In addition, the report highlights poor facilities. "In general, students are able to gain access to the learning resources they need including relevant and current book and journal stocks. However, across all subjects, reviewers found that 32 per cent of learning resource centres need to update and review their library stock in order to provide appropriate support for the higher education courses offered. (Libraries) frequently find difficulties in providing appropriate journals."

The report suggests sharing resources with local universities and recommends extending library opening hours.

The report also notes:

* Assessment flaws mean that on some courses "final grades may be more subjective than objective"

* Courses in some colleges neglect "higher order skills" appropriate for higher education.

The QAA asked The Times Higher not to contact any third parties for comment, as it had not published the report by the time the paper went to press.

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