The University of Buckingham has denied a claim by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) that it allowed a postgraduate law student to conduct research on sex offenders without consideration of ethical issues.
The lack of a central body for considering ethical issues related to research was one factor in the QAA's decision to give the private university a "limited confidence" rating after an institutional audit.
In an annexe to its audit report published last week, the QAA says its audit team met postgraduate students researching "very sensitive areas of legal and social practice (including sex offenders), who reported that they had begun (their research) before an overall consideration of ethical issues had taken place".
The watchdog adds: "This situation is untenable from the point of view of both the students themselves and of the university, both of which are exposed to unnecessary risk."
But Buckingham's vice-chancellor, Terence Kealey, denied the claim, and said he would be asking the QAA to remove the statement from its website. Professor Kealey said the student concerned had joined the university only five weeks earlier and had a pre-existing interest in sex offenders, but the area of PhD research had not been finalised. During the induction process, the student joined a supervision visit by criminology students to Grendon Underwood Prison. "That was the student's only potential exposure to sex offenders," Professor Kealey said. Soon after the QAA's visit, the student decided not to research sex offenders, he added.
He also denied that any of the seven research students interviewed by the QAA were involved in "very sensitive areas of legal and social practice".
"They were researching areas already covered by ethical committees or in computing and biography, where ethical matters were not raised," he said. Professor Kealey criticised the QAA for focusing on process over outcomes when Times Higher Education first reported that his university had been given the "limited confidence" rating.
The QAA also found that the university had no central ethics committee. The QAA said: "It is essential for the university to establish, at institutional level and with a view to ensuring an appropriate level of independence, a formal arena for the consideration of ethical issues, particularly, but not exclusively, in the context of research activity."
The vice-chancellor said departments such as psychology, whose research deals directly with people, have their own ethics committees. In departments such as law, supervisors are responsible for research ethics.
He added that the supervisor of the "sex offender student" had set up and chaired the Ethics Committee of the British Society of Criminology. Professor Kealey said: "We do not believe our existing practice has contributed to an ethical shortfall, and the QAA did not flag it up as a concern four years ago. To transform the lack of an institution-wide ethics committee from a matter causing no one concern to one contributing to limited confidence in just four years reflects badly on the QAA."
The QAA said that Buckingham was given numerous opportunities to challenge the report prior to publication, and at no stage did it contest the accuracy of the paragraph in question.