Britain's international academic reputation suffered a further blow this week when the Quality Assurance Agency expressed doubts about universities' overseas activities.
In an audit of Britain's operations in Spain, the QAA expressed concerns about the activities of five of the six universities it visited.
The reports come amid repeated concerns from QAA chief executive John Randall about the fragility of Britain's international reputation for excellence and its share of the overseas student market.
The QAA warned two universities - Exeter and Lancaster - that "limited confidence" could be placed in their ability to run any overseas operations properly. Exeter has since pulled out of its collaboration with a Spanish college.
More modest but still damaging criticisms were levelled at the University of Staffordshire, the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside and the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff. Only the University of Wales was given a relatively clean bill of health.
The QAA said that elements of Exeter's validation partnership with the Escuela Superior de Marketing de Gipuzkoa, which offers an Exeter University BA in business studies and marketing, "have not worked".
It said that although Exeter did have "well-established and clearly documented procedures", either "procedures have not been followed, or they have proved ineffective".
The QAA said that Exeter decided in 1996 to validate a programme in a foreign language, in an area in which it had only "limited expertise" and that it had aims and objectives that were "not directly comparable with those of its own programmes". It also failed to appoint an external examiner to the programme.
Exeter said it had already become aware of the problems and had "developed and refined" its quality assurance requirements since the visit, in summer 2000.
As a result of the concerns raised, Exeter told the QAA that "the university has since decided that it will not, in future, enter into the validation of overseas programmes delivered and assessed in a foreign language". It will also cease its Spanish partnership.
The QAA said that Lancaster has run its partnership with the Universidad Pontificias Comillas, in which students complete BA degrees in management in Spain, as if it were a simple student exchange programme. "In reality, however, the arrangement is one of validation," the QAA said.
The relationship was based too heavily on "good faith and informality, without the necessary formal mechanisms... to enable the university to assure itself that the programme... continues to be secure", the QAA said.
Lancaster has acknowledged the criticisms and has been taking steps to address the concerns. It said it was reviewing its overseas collaborations. The university said the report "was very positive for Lancaster's quality assurance procedures".