Quality watchdogs have been accused of unfairly maligning foundation degrees in a "prejudicial and premature" report that criticises the quality of the government's new flagship qualification.
As The THES reported last week, the QAA this week published a report confirming that after carrying out confidential reviews of 33 foundation degree courses in 2003, it had given "no confidence" judgements to four (12 per cent).
But it has emerged that one course, judged to be failing earlier this year, has now had the all clear. The reports on the other three courses have not been completed, so no formal judgement has been reached.
In its report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the QAA presents an overview of its findings from 33 confidential reviews of the fledgling courses.
It does not name the four courses found to be failing, but The THES understands that they are Anglia Polytechnic University's ophthalmic dispensing course, Liverpool John Moores University's foundation degree in construction, Hull University's teaching support foundation degree and Birkbeck College's foundation degree in information technology.
This week, APU said its course was judged to be failing earlier this year, but after a technical issue was resolved, it had been given the all clear.
A spokesman said: "At the time of the QAA inspection we were waiting for a visit from the General Optical Council to give the course its approval.
"The QAA was made aware that the GOC was due to visit; however, without GOC accreditation the agency chose to give the course a no-confidence rating.
Following the QAA visit, the course was accredited by the GOC.
"Seven weeks after the no-confidence rating the university had resolved the GOC matter and some minor problems with the course. We went back to the QAA and the course was given the all clear."
A spokeswoman for LJMU said the review of its course was not yet complete and no conclusion had been reached. She said: "The university considers the draft report following QAA review of its foundation degree to be just that - a draft - which is still subject to amendments and discussion. This review has yet to reach its conclusion. Until then, we're not prepared to comment."
It is understood that LJMU is disputing a no-confidence judgement and demanding a reinspection on the grounds that the QAA report is not accurate.
Birkbeck and Hull also stressed that no conclusions had been reached about their courses, as the process was not complete.
Sources at two of the four institutions said there was concern that the QAA had prejudged the outcome of the reports and had prejudiced any appeal against failing judgements, but would not comment on the record.
Those outside the four universities were more open. Kel Fidler, vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, said: "It is the mark of any professional assessment or accreditation system that a report is shared with those assessed to check for factual accuracy.
"Only when points relating to accuracy have been cleared should the process of report and corrective action proceed."
Geoffrey Alderman, former quality chief of Middlesex University and academic dean of the American Intercontinental University in London, said the QAA's premature overview report had prejudiced the normal process of agreeing final reports with institutions and had prejudiced any appeals.
"I think the QAA should have held back from publication until all the appeals were heard," he said. "If I were one of the appealing institutions, I would go to the courts to try to prevent publication until my appeal was heard."
He added that the report had unfairly maligned the new qualification. "Even if an appeal is upheld, the institution will nonetheless be tainted."
A QAA spokesman denied the agency had prejudged the outcome of its review.
He said: "The review of foundation degrees has found success in the overwhelming majority of programmes visited.
"The agency's report accurately reflected the findings of peer reviewers and was published to inform the sector about current practice and contribute to the separate evaluation of the foundation degree commissioned by Hefce. In the small number of no-confidence cases, institutions have been given the opportunity to appeal to the agency's board."