Quality watchdogs have delivered one of the worst ever inspection reports for a UK degree course.
A damning critique of the finance and accounting degree offered at the University of East London will raise fresh concerns about academic standards as universities enrol an increasing number of poorly qualified students from working-class backgrounds.
The inspectors found that more than one-third of students failed to finish degrees at UEL, while three-quarters who completed the course gained third-class or lower second-class degrees. There was also a lack of emphasis on "intellectual and transferable skills".
In a teaching review report this week, the Quality Assurance Agency says it has "no confidence" in the academic standards of UEL's accounting and finance course. The QAA highlights failings that include low entry requirements, opaque admissions decisions, poor student achievement and high dropout rates.
But the assessors acknowledge that the course is predominantly taken by non-traditional students with no experience of higher education and "for whom completion of a degree programme within three years may be very difficult".
UEL is the only university of the 88 so far inspected to fail one of the new "academic reviews", receiving a judgement that has been reached on only one previous occasion - with both the university's standards and the quality of learning opportunities on offer failed by inspectors.
In 2001-02, 65 per cent of the 175 full-time and 49 part-time students on the BA course were aged over 21. Almost one-third were Asian and more than half were black, with just 11 per cent white. While 58 per cent had A levels or similar qualifications, 42 per cent were recorded as having "other qualifications".
The report criticises the absence of admissions criteria for non-standard entry students. "Applicants who lack standard entry requirements may be interviewed and are offered places based on an assessment of their ability to cope with the programme," it says. "During the clearing period, interviews are demand led and informal, with no records kept of the number interviewed."
The report says the university had given students "four opportunities to take any assessment", and allowed them to progress to the next academic level if they passed four of six units.
The report concludes: "Significant improvement is required urgently if the provision is to become at least adequate."
Susan Price, pro vice-chancellor (academic) at UEL, said the university was concerned about the findings, but most of the issues had been addressed in an internal review that had led to a relaunch of the course. She said the report acknowledges that 70 per cent of students found jobs, and 13 per cent undertook further study. She strongly denied that the university was under pressure to get "bums on seats".
"If you have a large proportion of non-traditional students, you need additional support if they are going to succeed, and we are working to improve that, with a new personal tutor system and a programme of staff development."
ACCOUNTING DEGREE FAILURES
- No published admissions criteria for students without standard qualifications, and entry "demand led"
- 73 per cent of students gain third-class or lower second-class degrees, with only 7 per cent earning firsts
- 40 per cent of students fail to complete the degree in the expected three years, and about one-third drop out
- Lack of focus on "intellectual and transferable skills"
- Consistent shortage of desks/chairs in overcrowded lectures
- Students not prepared for standards expected in assessment.