Report set to blame TQA for dropout rise

March 9, 2001

Higher education quality assessments may be compounding university dropout problems, a report is expected to say.

The education select committee's second report on higher education is expected to criticise aspects of teaching quality assessment, which is carried out by the Quality Assurance Agency, and the research assessment exercise.

The report, on student retention and the balance between teaching and research, is expected to reflect evidence from witnesses who feel that quality assessments take up time that lecturers might otherwise spend with students.

Undergraduates who are most likely to drop out -generally from poorer backgrounds -benefit from increased academic and pastoral support, according to evidence heard by the committee.

Criticism in the report is likely to focus on the perceived lack of understanding of how intrusive teaching and research audits can be and the scale of their impact on institutions' daily administration.

Controversy continues to dog the select committee's higher education inquiry. Its first report, into student access, led to opposition party members of the committee producing separate reports.

Disagreement centred on claims that the official report failed to reflect evidence heard by the committee that the government's decision to abolish maintenance grants in 1999 had deterred some people from applying for university.

In response, Labour chairman Barry Sheerman promised that the second report on retention would deal more thoroughly with the issue of maintenance grants.

Opposition members are sceptical. Liberal Democrat spokesman for higher education Evan Harris has already tabled a number of amendments to the draft report. Conservative member Nick St Aubyn believes the retention report will add little to the debate.

The full education and employment committee is scheduled to consider the draft report next Wednesday.

Umist appeal wins upgrade from QAA

The Quality Assurance Agency has been forced to withdraw a critical report on the quality of teaching at University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology after complaints of procedural flaws, writes Phil Baty .

Objections from Umist led to a complete revision of the QAA's judgement on the quality of teaching at Umist's molecular biology degree courses. Sunderland University is also disputing a teaching quality assessment report. This comes weeks after King's College, London, disowned its QAA audit report, claiming that the auditors "didn't understand what we were talking about".

Reassessment of the Umist review improved the aggregate score from 18 out of 24 (relatively poor) to 22 (excellent). Grades in four out of six inspection categories were raised. The department narrowly avoided being placed under special supervision.

The QAA had originally raised questions about the department's teaching, learning and assessment, and its quality assurance management systems, awarding both of these categories 2 out of 4 and calling for "significant improvement".

In a new report, the two areas singled out for particular concern were both given 3 out of 4, rather than 2. Two other areas had grades raised from 3 to 4.

The QAA said that when investigations find procedural flaws that might have affected the TQA result, a re-review takes place. This only happens "in a small number of cases", a spokesman said.

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