Students were still being rewarded for "unacceptable work" at the European School of Economics last year, despite repeated warnings about lenient marking, according to documents seen by The THES .
A series of leaked external examiners' reports shows that serious concerns were raised about standards at the private business school as far back as July 1999 but had to be repeated in subsequent reports. One examiner for humanities courses warned of lenient marking in two reports before a third report in August last year found that "unacceptable work is permitted and rewarded".
The THES reported last year that staff at the ESE London campus were having to teach students without basic facilities and had resorted to desperate measures to get their salaries paid - some refused to mark students' work and at least one hired a debt collector.
In November, Nottingham Trent University confirmed that it had decided not to renew its contract to validate ESE's degrees, although it would validate the degrees of all students who enrolled in autumn 2002.
Now the leaked external examiners' reports reveals the extent of some of the quality shortcomings at the school.
In August 2001, Andreina Bianchini, an external examiner for the humanities courses, said that in come cases "the work submitted varied greatly in quality, with poorer papers more generously compensated than the better ones".
She said that on one course in "political image management, an excellent and a (second) rather ordinary paper both received the mark of 29 (out of 30)". She added that in some dissertations, "there is usually little of what would be normally referred to as research".
But the problems persisted. Three months later, in November 2001, she reported: "In some history and political science exams... the main problem was lenient marking standards." She also warned that in some cases students who failed core modules of the course were given "pardons" and allowed to continue with their studies.
"It was apparent...that there has come to be a certain abuse of the 'pardoning' of courses failed more than once," she said.
In August 2002, she noted that the standard of dissertations "varied considerably from campus to campus, and over-marking was common. I must restate that it is not that there is a lack of good work, but rather that, alongside it, unacceptable work is permitted and rewarded.
"I can provide specific examples of superficial treatments of commonly known material... in which grades ranged from 28 to 30 (out of 30)."
She said that part of the problem could be underqualified staff. "The problems which arise in the dissertations may be due to the fact that in many cases the staff who are doing the marking are not fundamentally academic personnel with teaching experience on university or college faculties."
Dr Bianchini this week told The THES that the humanities courses she had examined made up just a small fraction of ESE's total provision, and they tended to be weaker than the main teaching area of business studies. "It is not exceptionally scandalous to observe uneven marking patterns," she said.
"The important thing is that there were externals to raise a red flag.
Specific dissertation marks were lowered after my comments (about lenient marking)."
But other leaked external examiners' reports reveal other quality shortcomings. An August 2001 joint report from six external examiners, including Dr Bianchini and Douglas Briggs of Glasgow University, warned that "there are many matters which concern us all. Many of these matters date back to our first joint report in July 1999."
The externals said "there have been too many unacceptable (exam) papers that we have not been able to amend", and when the externals have suggested changes to exam papers "these have not always been incorporated". They also said that "questions in many subjects are not sufficiently challenging for fourth-year students". And "in many subjects, the syllabi appeared to be very ambitious and most unlikely to be achieved".
Dr Bianchini said: "The externals have always found complete cooperation on the part of ESE with regard to our criticisms and requests for changes. In fact, ESE has kept on, over four years, an extremely severe and unyielding team of externals."