One of the worst quality audit reports has been given to one of Britain's most prestigious music and drama conservatoires.
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama, accredited by City University and the University of Kent and a training ground for stars such as Star Wars actor Ewan McGregor and flautist James Galway, was found by a Quality Assurance Agency audit team to have made statements about its quality systems that bore little relation to "current reality".
A QAA auditors' report warns of conflicts of interests, with "external friends" of the school taking on a number of overlapping external scrutiny roles. The school was found to have such poor systems for student feedback that students may have been "misled" about their progress. The auditors demanded eight "necessary" improvements, with a further 16 recommended changes.
Despite publishing more than a dozen institutional audit reports, the QAA has only twice before demanded procedural improvements as a "necessity", usually confining itself to voluntary recommendations.
The damning report, based on the voluntary cooperation of Guildhall, which is not funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, has raised questions about the QAA's focus on bureaucratic systems.
The audit team, which did not include any specialists in the fields of music and drama, acknowledged that the school was "pre-eminent in the world of conservatoires" and that provision was good. But it found that the school's history and status had led it to believe it was "cushioned from the demands of quality assurance systems".
The report says that the school made false claims about its quality systems, and adds: "Some of the school's responses in validation documents to questions posed by its validating partners seemed to the audit team to read like unrealised statements of intent." It goes on: "There is... a marked discrepancy between (claims in one document) and the then or current reality."
At the time when one validation document was submitted to the University of Kent, the school did not have a staff development committee, "yet the school maintains in the submission that such a committee kept minutes and reported to academic board", says the report.
"The school has (since) recognised the necessity to make sure that statements on matters relating to quality assurance are confined to what can be demonstrated as a working reality."
The school's small size and "homogeneity" had also led to several potential conflicts of interest, as "external friends were called upon in a variety of guises; as examiners, validators and assessors".
One external validator was also an external examiner and had been involved in revalidation activities, "which is not commended practice", the auditors said.
The QAA found that systems for monitoring student progression and achievement were varied and often inadequate. The team said that the "informal and sometimes discrete" nature of student feedback "might mean that some students could be overlooked and so be unclear or even misled about their development and progress". This could explain high failure rates, the report says.
Guildhall's entire directorate and press department was on holiday and unable to comment as The THES went to press. But the auditors did find elements of the school's work to commend.
The report acknowledges that progress had been difficult as the school was facing a major "strategic shift" as it balanced its traditional role of producing students with excellent performing skills with the growing need to respond to demands to cultivate broader individual skills.
The school should be commended for its "commitment to excellence in artistic performance" and the seriousness with which it is attempting to "engage with accepted quality assurance procedures".
Guildhall School of Music and Drama: THE FACTS
Founded in 1880.
Owned and funded by the City of London's local authority, the Corporation of London.
It receives no funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Based in the Barbican Arts Centre, in the City of London, it boasts as its neighbours the Barbican Theatre and the Pit.
For degrees and postgraduate qualifications, it is validated by the University of Kent (music courses), City University (drama courses), and the University of York for a music therapy course. It also makes a number of awards in its own name, notably the Associateship of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
In 1997-98 it had 649 full-time students, and 0 part-time students. Of these, 529 were studying music, with just 120 attending the exclusive drama courses.
Famous alumni include Hollywood film stars Ewan McGregor, Joseph Fiennes, who played William Shakespeare in the Oscar- winning Shakespeare in Love, Art Malik, the Hollywood villain currently appearing in the West End, and musician James Galway. The school has also produced numerous soap and sit-com stars, including Neil Morrissey, of Men Behaving Badly.