QAA to look into drama at QMU

Watchdog to meet managers to discuss claims at level of 'informal inquiry'. Hannah Fearn reports

June 4, 2009

Officials from the quality watchdog are to meet university managers this week to discuss claims of declining standards and a loss of practical teaching on a leading drama course.

The meeting between the Quality Assurance Agency Scotland and Queen Margaret University comes after the dean of the drama school wrote to staff to insist that a report in Times Higher Education ("Quality concerns take centre stage as staff quit over dramatic changes", 14 May) that the agency had begun an inquiry was "completely without substance".

The meeting was triggered by a letter from former staff at QMU to QAA Scotland that warned that proposed changes to an undergraduate drama course would affect quality and leave graduates ill prepared for the future.

It has been called under the QAA's "protocol for managing potential risks to quality and academic standards" and is at the level of "informal inquiry". It will determine whether QAA Scotland begins a formal public investigation.

The agenda includes discussion about the planning and validation process of the new degree, the information given to applicants to the new drama programme and the process of securing the student experience of undergraduates completing the now-discontinued practical drama degree.

In an email to staff last week, David Dunn, dean of the School of Drama and Creative Industries, said: "The central allegation in the (Times Higher Education) piece, that the QAA has launched an investigation into declining standards, is completely without substance."

However, a university spokeswoman has confirmed that an "informal meeting" between QAA Scotland and QMU is due to take place on 5 June, although she emphasised that "there is no formal investigation under way".

The meeting comes after figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service suggested that QMU may be struggling to match other Edinburgh-based institutions in application numbers.

While Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier and Heriot-Watt universities all recorded a rise in the number of applications between March 2008 and March 2009, QMU suffered a 17 per cent decline.

However, the QMU spokeswoman insisted that application rates were not down "across the board" and that the drop affected primarily oversubscribed courses.

Times Higher Education understands that a planned meeting between staff and managers to discuss how the drama department at the centre of the QAA's interest could meet the validation criteria of the new programme had to be re-arranged when several staff failed to confirm their attendance.

A source close to the department who asked to remain anonymous said: "My colleagues have not had an organised boycott, but they're so sick of the situation they avoided it."

The QMU spokeswoman insisted that the postponement of the meeting, which eventually went ahead last week, was down to a clash with practical assessments. When the meeting was held, it was "incredibly productive and much was achieved", she said.

Owing to its commitment to confidentiality at the earliest stages of its engagement with a university, QAA Scotland could not make a public statement.

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