Southampton shows teeth and watchdog backs down

Russell Group member successfully appeals against full QAA review

May 16, 2013

Threat neutered: Southampton makes history with appeal over institutional review

A Russell Group institution has become the first university to successfully appeal against critical findings in a full review by the Quality Assurance Agency, Times Higher Education can reveal.

The sector’s standards watchdog has confirmed it has set aside an institutional review conducted last year into the University of Southampton on the advice of its appeals panel and will undertake a new one with alternative reviewers.

The decision follows more than four months of discussions between the QAA and Southampton about the review, which was expected to be published in January.

It is believed that the publication was suspended after Southampton lodged a complaint against the reviewers, whose role is to check that universities are upholding quality and standards procedures.

No reasons have been given for the appeal or the panel’s decision to uphold it, and the contents of the original review remain a mystery, but universities are entitled to a fresh review if the QAA finds a “deficiency of process” or a “perversity of judgement”, according to its complaints code.

Under the present system, institutions can appeal against judgements that they have not met, or require improvement to meet, “UK expectations” in four areas: academic standards, quality of student learning, enhancement of student learning and quality of information.

This is the first time that any university has successfully challenged the findings of an institutional review, which normally takes place every six years (although before September 2011, appeals were only allowed against “no confidence” judgements, as they were termed in the past).

The appeal is likely to raise eyebrows in the sector as it involved a university in the Russell Group, none of whose members have received critical QAA review judgements.

Several post-1992 and less prestigious traditional universities have been subject to limited confidence judgements in institutional audits, or told to improve specific parts of their provision, but no major research- intensive university has faced censure.

“It will raise suspicions that the QAA is only willing to take on the little people who cannot fight back,” said Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University.

“I don’t know if it’s worse for the QAA or Southampton, because both are likely to be tarnished by the encounter,” added Professor Brown, former head of the QAA’s predecessor, the Higher Education Quality Council, and visiting professor of education at Southampton.

“People will think there is no smoke without fire, even if Southampton is given a clean bill of health in the new review,” he added.

However, the QAA would be most likely to suffer if it approved a critical review of a major research-intensive university, argued Geoffrey Alderman, professor of politics and history at the University of Buckingham and former head of the University of London’s academic council.

“By definition, a Russell Group university enjoys an international reputation for research and teaching, so who is the QAA to question that reputation?” Professor Alderman asked.

He added: “The QAA would look foolish. How could it possibly say it did not have confidence in standards there when international researchers in many fields look to that university?

“The obvious inference is that something is wrong with its own inspection processes, not with Southampton.”

He believed that the Russell Group institution may have failed to comply with a “mind-boggling list of boxes to tick” and said he would be “gobsmacked” if standards were judged to have been at risk.

The QAA and Southampton have issued a joint statement, saying the university’s appeal against the original review has been upheld.

“The scope, nature and date of the new review have yet to be determined,” they say. “The findings of the appeal panel will be published when the new review report is available.”

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