The quality watchdog's mantra that its fledgling audit regime is a "light touch, not soft touch" was underlined this week when a report revealed that just two of the first eight institutions to be inspected have been given a clean bill of health.
An overview report by the Quality Assurance Agency says that, while the results of the first new-style audits of institutions - unnamed in the overview - have confirmed broad confidence in the management of quality and standards of all concerned, six of the reports "moderate this confidence judgement in a variety of different ways". Of the six reports:
- Four say that broad confidence in the institutions' future quality management "is dependent on further work and/or action in response to the audit team's recommendations"
- One report indicates that the judgement of broad confidence for the future is the result of the institution's recent implementation of new structures and procedures that remain to be properly tested
- One report expresses "limited confidence" in the management of the provision offered in collaboration with partner institutions.
Peter Williams, chief executive of the QAA, told The Times Higher : "We are very pleased with the way the first eight audits went. It confirms the trust in institutions' own internal quality assurance procedures. But we have also seen and reported on areas where activities can be improved.
There is certainly no room for complacency."
The audit regime was launched in 2002 to replace the system of universal subject-level inspections combined with periodic institution-wide audits, abolished after pressure from vice-chancellors.
Instead, each university is given a week-long audit every six years. The system checks that institutions have the mechanisms in place to secure their own standards rather than making judgements on the standards themselves. The first visits took place in January 2003.
The QAA's report, Institutional Audit: Key Features and Findings of the First Audits , says: "The reports indicate that there is a wide range of good practice within the eight institutions.
"They also make recommendations for further consideration, particularly in relation to institutional frameworks for assuring quality and standards, the management and monitoring of collaborative provision and the use of management information, particularly statistical data."
The audit reports categorise recommendations for further action in order of priority - demanding "essential" action where weaknesses are putting standards at risk, "advisable" action where problems are not as acute, and "desirable" action where minor problems are found.
No report contains a demand for "essential" action, although two advise institutions to act "without delay". The eight reports contain a total of 52 recommendations, and all include recommendations for "advisable" action.
The overview report says: "These include strengthening arrangements for the approval of new programmes, for handling the reports of external examiners and for student representation.
"One institution is advised to give attention without delay to its approach to course design, delivery and assessment. Notably, it is recommended that five of the eight institutions improve their use of management information, particularly statistical data."