Phil Baty reports on the fourth institution to receive a 'limited confidence' rating
Quality watchdogs have reported only "limited confidence" in academic standards at Luton University almost two years after The Times Higher first revealed concerns that standards were being compromised as a result of financial pressures.
In a report this week, the Quality Assurance Agency says: "Limited confidence can be placed in the soundness of (Luton's) current and likely future management of the quality of its academic programmes and the academic standards of its awards."
The Times Higher reported last November that there were concerns that the university's precarious financial situation had encouraged it to compromise standards to attract students and to keep them on courses.
At the time, vice-chancellor Les Ebdon said: "At no time have I, or would I, allow standards to be compromised."
The Times Higher had also earlier reported concerns that rules had been changed in December 2003 to allow first-year students to study "without fear of failure" by letting them progress without passing all their course modules.
The QAA audit report says that as a result of this rule change "the team believes it desirable for the university to consider whether its... rules could encourage students who are not yet competent to progress to the next level, and to continue to monitor student performance in this context".
The QAA also said it was "essential" that Luton improve the way it sets up and approves new courses. The report says: "The team was told that a new foundation degree course was approved to run... where subsequently students were surprised by some of the course content, unclear about its relevance and still unaware of the title of the award they would receive."
The report means that Luton is only the fourth higher education institution to receive a "limited-confidence" judgment from more than 100 audits so far carried out.
In a statement, Luton said that there were many positive aspects in the report and it welcomed "the recognition of several areas of good practice, particularly as these further reinforce our reputation for excellence in student support and employability".
It added: "We are nevertheless surprised and disappointed by the fact that the QAA felt unable to go further than a limited confidence outcome, especially since many of the criticisms contradict Teaching Quality Assessments and developmental engagements by other QAA teams. We are particularly disappointed that that the audit preferred oral over documentary evidence. While we do not agree with the overall conclusion, we will address those issues that concerned the audit team. We have already begun a rigorous review of all our processes."