QAA upholds two 'concerns' about UK’s biggest private college

Admissions procedures and student retention at St Patrick’s flagged, as well as ‘fighting in the classroom’, although other areas pass scrutiny

April 30, 2015

The quality watchdog has upheld two concerns about standards at the UK’s biggest private college, St Patrick’s, finding drop-out rates of over 30 per cent and reports of fighting in the classroom.

However, following the report the government has given the green light to for-profit St Patrick’s – where students have received £185 million in public-backed funding in the last two years – for it to resume accessing public money. The college had fee payments suspended earlier this year.

The QAA’s report, published under its “Concerns” scheme on 30 April, found that practice was “broadly acceptable” in four out of six areas examined at the college. The “significant exceptions” were admissions procedures and student retention and attendance, where the QAA said the “concerns raised are justified”.

According to the report, there is evidence “indicative of recruitment errors and a failure to ensure that academic staff are equipped to cope with periodic disciplinary problems”.

The QAA also says that the college’s “approach to student recruitment includes making cold contacts. Students accordingly reported having been approached by a representative of the college who described the programmes on offer, drawing attention to the potential availability of student loans.”

The report does say that the college has “made progress” on student learning opportunities since a previous visit by the QAA.

St Patrick’s “will provide an action plan” within six weeks, to be followed up by a full QAA Higher Education Review to ensure the report’s recommendations are addressed, the QAA says.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills also investigated St Patrick’s. Its investigation has been completed, but has not been published.

A BIS spokesman said this week that “following the BIS and QAA investigations, the procedures put in place and the action plan agreed with St Patrick’s International College, the department wrote to St Patrick’s and confirmed that the Secretary of State [Vince Cable] has decided to…lift the suspension of fee payments to St Patrick’s in respect of all students the college identified as actively participating in their studies”.

However, in a separate development this week, the Home Office has confirmed that St Patrick’s licence to sponsor overseas students has been revoked.

In 2013-14, nearly 7,000 students claimed SLC fee loans to take St Patrick’s sub-degree Higher National courses, awarded by Pearson.

Current students told the QAA’s Concerns team “that they believed some students had joined only to secure the loan which was available and had submitted either no work or patently inadequate work”, the QAA’s report says.

The report adds that there were “examples provided” of “poor classroom behaviour” which included “students fighting in the classroom”.

And it says that students “reported failures to protect their learning opportunities by managing the disruptive behaviour of unmotivated students. Such a situation, which sees also a minimum 30 per cent non-progression rate and a significant minority of students submitting no work (or submitting late), is indicative of recruitment errors and a failure to ensure that academic staff are equipped to cope with periodic disciplinary problems.”

The QAA’s report on St Patrick’s finds that UK Quality Code for Higher Education expectation that “admissions arrangements are clear, fair, explicit and consistently applied” was “not met”. The expectation that “every student is enable to develop as an independent learner, study their chosen subject(s) in depth and enhance their capacity for analytical, critical and creative thinking” was also “not met”.

Daniel Khan, St Patrick’s principal, said that the college was “one of the few alternative providers to be granted ‘subscriber’ status”, meaning it had had to “demonstrate to [the] QAA’s satisfaction that it is a mature self-critical academic community”.

He added that “as soon as we received a first draft of the report we moved to compose an ‘action plan’ and agreed it with QAA ahead of publication of the final report.

“The college will now concentrate its energies on implementing that action plan.”

He also said that St Patrick’s “takes particular satisfaction from QAA’s finding that the majority of the concerns raised cannot be upheld and its recognition that students speak positively about the helpfulness of teaching staff, person tutors, and unit leaders”.

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