Quality watchdogs have criticised the control of academic standards at two of the UK's most prestigious higher education institutions.
In an audit report this week, the Quality Assurance Agency warns that it will endorse the standard of degrees awarded by the London Business School in future only if the institution acts urgently on key recommendations.
And last week the QAA demanded a number of improvements at Cambridge University, calling into question control of standards at the institution with a pointed demand for action "as a matter of high priority".
The QAA report concludes that it has "broad confidence" in the LBS's ability to manage quality and maintain standards but this is strongly qualified. The agency warns that its future confidence depends on the university implementing a number of key recommendations.
The fiercely independent, market-driven LBS all but ignores the entire QAA "academic infrastructure" -consisting of its nine-section code of practice and minimum benchmark degree standards among other elements -drawn up by the quality agency in consultation with the sector since 1998.
The report says: "Throughout its meetings with senior members of the school, and faculty at all levels, the audit team was told repeatedly that, as an institution that benchmarks its standards against those of the leading business schools of America, referencing the standards of the awards for its programmes to UK comparators was of limited relevance to the school."
The report found that the LBS had not developed any "programme specifications" detailing the content of awards as required by the QAA, had not applied the masters degree benchmark standards to its awards and has more or less completely ignored the code of practice.
It says that without reference to this nationally agreed infrastructure "it will become difficult in the future to maintain confidence in the school's quality management and its arrangements to safeguard academics standards of the university's awards...
"The team advises the school, as a matter of priority, to consider what measures are needed to enable it to engage with, learn from and contribute to the academic infrastructure developed by the agency on behalf of the UK higher education sector," the report says.
The QAA also said that the LBS: should "reflect on its existing processes and procedures" for the validation and approval of new courses; should clarify responsibility for the management of academic standards; and should "extend its procedures for the handling of complaints by students to cover complaints about their learning opportunities."
The LBS repeatedly declined requests by The THES to comment on the report.
Cambridge is one of the QAA's strongest critics and has for 11 years resisted audit on a point of principle. In a report widely anticipated as a key test of the QAA's fledgling light-touch audit regime, the QAA says that it has "broad confidence... in the soundness of [Cambridge's] current and likely future management of the quality of its academic programmes and the academic standards of its awards".
But while it lists six areas of "good practice", it makes six more recommendations for improvements. It says that the university should "review, as a matter of high priority", its control over programmes offered in partnership with outside bodies; it should "consider whether the degree of variability permitted in the specific roles of external examiners across institutions is acceptable"; and should make sure its academic staff "understood" recent changes to quality assurance procedures.
Cambridge hit back at criticisms with a withering criticism of the QAA's report. It issued a statement criticising the agency's "unfortunate" failure to properly recognise the extent of Cambridge's "excellent provision" and its "established procedures" for assuring its own quality.
Cambridge's academic secretary, Graham Able, said: "It is unfortunate that the report does not always convey the extent of [our] excellence, which is regularly confirmed by external indicators."
In an official statement by Cambridge's general board, the university makes further criticisms: "[The report] fails to take sufficient account of more established procedures, which are demonstrated to be effective in the findings in the disciplines trailed."
It also appears largely to dismiss the QAA's extensive code of practice for the assurance of academic standards: "The university expects its process to take account of the QAA's code, but, unlike the report, it does not expect individual staff always to refer explicitly to the code."
Geoffrey Alderman, a former QAA reviewer and academic dean of the American Intercontinental University in London, said: "The QAA's quality infrastructure is clearly meant to be a guide, not a draconian edict, and the agency risks seriously damaging the reputation of British higher education if it doesn't stick to its own rules and wanders off with agendas of its own."
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