Thames Valley out on report

November 13, 1998

Thames Valley University is facing an unprecedented degree of external control. This follows a damning report from the Quality Assurance Agency which has been investigating accusations of dumbing down.

The QAA's report concludes that the university is "in a position where its academic standards and the quality of its students' experience were - and are - under threat".

Standards can only be maintained, the QAA said, "by special measures".

The Higher Education Funding Council has appointed an "external review team", led by Sir William Taylor, former vice-chancellor of Hull University, along with Quentin Thompson, of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

They will prepare an action plan to rescue the university.

A HEFCE spokesman said this week that compliance with the recovery plan could be "a condition of future grants".

In a statement, Thames Valley governors said they had accepted the recommendations of the QAA report "unreservedly".

They believed the recommendations "provide a firm basis for the university to continue to progress and provide a high quality learning experience for students".

They said that "the report does not question the value or currency of TVU degrees and qualifications. The review team specifically stated that the university's degrees are not awarded to those who have not reached the necessary standard".

The report, published yesterday, examined, among other issues, the management of a move to a "new learning experience" for students, in which teaching contact hours were cut.

The QAA, earlier this year, cleared the university of deliberately lowering degree pass marks. But the report found that the university's "structures and procedures for safeguarding quality and standards" were inadequate.

The difficulties have been exacerbated by a recruitment crisis, jeopardising the university's financial position.

The QAAreport says: "We consider on the evidence of the report of the review team that the university requires a measure of external supervision to ensure that there may be confidence in its exercise of its powers to award degrees."

The university's degree-awarding powers cannot be revoked without an act of parliament, hence the need for external supervision.

John Randall, chief executive of the QAA, told The THES: "Standards at TVU are at risk. It is vital steps are taken urgently to protect the interests of current students and secure public confidence in the university. I welcome the speedy response to our recommendations by the governors."

HEFCE chief executive Brian Fender said: "Decisive action is needed to resolve the serious situation at TVU. The priority is to ensure that current and future students are guaranteed a good standard of education."

Vice-chancellor Mike Fitzgerald's position appeared to be in jeopardy as The THES went to press. He was reported to be on a flight to Atlanta, United States on Wednesday night.

The report is understood to have singled out poor staff/management relations as an area of concern. The QAA found that the university's education policy committee could not safeguard standards adequately.

Chair of governors Sheila Forbes said that there were 28,000 students at TVU who were being effectively taught, who were achieving their learning goals and who, "armed with their qualification from the university, make a positive contribution to their places of work and their communities".

The QAA will reinvestigate the university in 2001, to ensure the recommendations have been implemented. It will not be involved in the action plan meanwhile.

HEFCE action plan

Aim: to secure a good standard of education for current and future students. Plan to be agreed by TVU and submitted to HEFCE by March 311999.

Structures and procedures for safeguarding quality and standards will be overhauled.

There will be a plan to deal with the financial shortfall resulting from under- recruitment.

The action team will:

* consider areas of strength, patterns of recruitment, internal organisation, and scope for collaboration with other HE and FE institutions

* set a timetable, performance indicators and deadlines

* provide for the assessment ofstudents this academic year

* arrange for next year's admissions

* plan for return to financial viability

* protect further and continuing education programmes.

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