The landmark report that damned Thames Valley University as the first "failing" British university contains fundamental flaws, it was claimed this week.
Documents obtained by The THES show that TVU contested matters of fact and interpretation in 57 paragraphs of the Quality Assurance Agency's 77-paragraph "special review" report into the university. But the QAA allowed just a few days to take corrections into account before publishing its report. The QAA also appears to have accepted that it had made significant mistakes in the draft, but it simply altered certain key words in the final report, leaving conclusions based on the mistakes in place.
Andy Ross, former director of undergraduate studies at TVU, said this week that the QAA's report is based on "profound inadequacies of procedure and fundamental inaccuracies of content". Speaking out for the first time in response to Whistleblowers' revelations, he said: "Given the importance of the report for the future of the university's students and staff, and indeed HE in general, I was astonished."
Points uncovered by Whistleblowers include the following:
The QAA's report blames many of the problems at TVU on the mismanaged introduction of a "new learning environment", but the QAA incorrectly believed that this NLE was introduced a year earlier than it actually was. The QAA's draft report said the NLE was in place at the time of the administrative "unravelling" in summer 1997, when in fact it was introduced later as a solution to the crisis.
The QAA's draft report lists "problems associated with the introduction of the NLE in 1996-97". When corrected by TVU, the QAA simply removed the word "introduction" and changed the final draft to refer to "problems confronted at the time of the development of the NLE".
Indeed, an entire chapter heading, "The introduction of the new learning environment", was changed in the final version to "Developments in recent years". The final report made the NLE a central plank of the QAA's conclusion that academic standards were under threat, but a 1999 audit found that the NLE was "bedding down well" and the undergraduate curriculum was "sound". "After more scrutiny than any other university structure, the NLE has been shown to be a success," said Mr Ross.
The QAA's draft said that a "number of practices" damaged the QAA's confidence in TVU's assessment procedures. One of only three examples of such practices cited in the draft report was a decision over student assignments, said by the QAA to have been "made by management fiat", without the crucial "deliberation of the appropriate academic body".
When TVU said the decision had been made by the academic board, the QAA simply removed references to a unilateral management decree, and changed its criticism, reporting that "there appeared to have been no discussion of this decision at the education policy committee meeting".
The QAA asserted in its draft report that "we understand that ... it is possible for marks to be approved and degrees to be classified in the absence of the external examiner, whose signature is not required on mark or pass lists".
When told that this was wrong, the QAA changed its report to say the QAA had been "led to believe" that "it might be possible for marks to be approved... in the absence of the external examiner." The conclusion that the situation cast serious doubt over TVU's academic standards remained.
Peter Williams, director of institutional audit at the QAA, declined to discuss detailed points raised by The THES, but said: "QAA stands by its published report on TVU, which was accepted in its entirety by the university's board of governors." Want to blow the whistle?
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