Quality chief John Randall has raised serious doubts over ministers' plans to expand higher education provision through further education colleges, claiming that quality failings are "disproportionately" high in colleges.
Using this week's launch of the Quality Assurance Agency's second annual report, chief executive Mr Randall warned that despite the sector's generally improving performance "there remain areas of weakness", including failings in curriculum design and assessment methods.
"Regrettably, these failings are found disproportionately in higher education programmes delivered through further education colleges," he said. "In some cases this must give rise to a question of whether the college has the capacity to deliver such programmes."
The comments will come as a blow to ministers, whose plans for widening participation in higher education are to focus on the college sector. They will also raise question marks over plans for a two-year, vocational foundation degree to be provided largely in colleges.
Analysis of the QAA's subject reviews shows a disproportionately high number of failings in colleges, with top marks clustered in old universities. Analysis of the last full round of assessments, from 1996 to 1998, found that 62.5 per cent of failing departments were in colleges and 37.5 per cent in new universities, with virtually no failure in old universities.
But Simeon Underwood, head of the professional courses unit at the University of Lancaster, said he was "slightly surprised" that Mr Randall "feels he has enough evidence for these comments", as so few reviews had been carried out in colleges. The number is set to increase in the current round and "there is the danger these comments will be seen as prejudicing the outcomes of future reviews".
Colleges are disadvantaged by the system as they are less familiar with the methodology, said Mr Underwood. They also suffer from a lack of peer reviewers and fall down most often on the quality of their learning resources.
"Colleges would be entitled to believe that reviewers bring with them preconceptions about an appropriate level of resources and appropriate style of management for higher education," he said. "The QAA should help colleges to develop and enhance their higher education provision, rather than questioning their capacity to deliver it."
But Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute and former chief of the Higher Education Quality Council, said the relative quality of college provision was a real cause for concern. "The government is strongly committed to expanding higher education in further education, but it would be a good idea if they were to read some of these reports before they go down that path," he said. He warned that students could reject the new foundation degree on quality grounds.
Mr Randall also rebuffed growing criticism that subject review had become invalid in the face of grade inflation. He claimed that universities were simply improving.
But senior QAA sources have privately conceded that "gamesmanship" was partly responsible. The proportion of departments scoring 22 or more out of 24 has rocketed to more than 50 per cent, compared with just 34 per cent in 1996-98.
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