The standards of degree courses offered by more than 100 institutions validated by the Open University have been called into question by the Quality Assurance Agency.
After an audit of one of the OU's overseas partnerships, the agency has concluded that, without urgent action, "there can be only a limited confidence in the university's stewardship of the quality and standards of its validated awards". It stresses that the findings of the single audit "are relevant to the university's general arrangements for accreditation and validation".
The OU has around 11,500 students registered on its validated courses, which include Ruskin College, Oxford, the Central School of Speech and Drama, and the European Business School in Regent's Park, London.
The QAA concluded in a report this week that the OU delegates too much responsibility for awards to its partners and is not sufficiently in control of the standards and quality of qualifications awarded in its name.
The OU delegates responsibility first to the Open University Validation Service Unit (OUVS), a largely autonomous business, which in turn leaves much responsibility to the partner institution. Following an audit last year of the OU's Danish partner, Kolding Kobmandsskole, the audit team found that:
- "The senior university committee with responsibility for collaborative provision (the validating committee) has not, over a period of several years, given any detailed attention to the (monitoring) reports" received from the Danish college - a "major weakness", according to the QAA
- "The audit team was not entirely convinced that monitoring mechanisms... permit the university to have a sufficient level of confidence that the quality of learning opportunities and student support provided in the partner institution is satisfactory"
- There is insufficient control over staff appointments at the college, some of whom have "problems with English-language competence"
- "The university retains only nominal data on students. It also indicates little interest in communicating concern for the welfare of these students."
The audit team recognised that the OU had carried out a comprehensive review of OUVS work in 2000, identifying many problems, which it had begun to address with several "positive" changes. But, the report said, the audit identified grounds for concern.
"The conclusion of the audit is therefore that the university should now, as a matter of priorityI complete the implementation of its own review...
and introduce the planned arrangements for a strengthened level of monitoring and support."
Kate Clarke, director of the OUVS, said the university was "disappointed" with the QAA report as it appeared to "challenge the legitimacy of accreditation as a model for collaboration", even though it was well-established common practice. "The QAA's code of practice says that under accreditation arrangements 'the awarding institution exercises only limited control over the quality assurance functions'," she said.
She said the findings in no way reflected badly on the actual quality of the Danish college.
Geoffrey Alderman, vice president of the OUVS-validated American Intercontinental University in London, said the QAA was "plain daft" to draw wider conclusions about the OUVS from one audit, and had condemned a model for accreditation that was "widely understood and accepted".