Quality chiefs have told Heriot-Watt University to address "shortcomings" in the quality control of its collaborative arrangements, including its prestigious link with the Edinburgh College of Art.
Heriot-Watt and ECA, which have had links for the past 30 years, are in the middle of merger talks. If negotiations are successful, the two could merge by summer 2001.
The Quality Assurance Agency said that it has "broad confidence" in the university's standards but that problems uncovered by an audit had meant that "only limited confidence can be placed in the university's oversight of the standards of its programmes delivered off campus".
The university has collaborative relationships with the ECA, which is an associate college and awards Heriot-Watt degrees, and the Limerick Institute of Technology, whose awards the university validates.
Problems were discovered with the quality control of both partnerships. Neither relationship is subject to a signed, legal agreement, contrary to recommended practice. And the university has failed to properly implement improvements to its relationship with ECA, which were demanded in 1985.
Four years ago the now superseded Higher Education Quality Council told the university to review the work of the ECA academic advisory committee. The QAA's auditors "noted with some concern" that the new committee did not meet until July 1998. It was also concerned that internal audits of the ECA had been repeatedly postponed.
"Fundamental shortcomings" were identified in the university's partnership with Limerick. The QAA criticised the fact that ten years had elapsed without a review and revalidation of the degree courses provided in Limerick. It took a highly critical set of external examiners' reports in 1998 before the university took any action.
The QAA made 17 recommendations for improvements, but it did list nine "points for commendation". It said that the university had worked hard to address the gender imbalance among students and had commended improvements to the planning process.