Whistleblowers: Who's watching QAA?

August 31, 2001

John Randall's attacks on university accountability have prompted some to ask who watches the watchdog. Geoffrey Alderman, an expert on international university regulation, said: "The unmentioned question raised by Mr Randall's criticism of university accountability is 'where was his accountability?'"

Mr Randall, of the QAA, resigned as chief executive last week over proposals to reduce subject inspections. But concerns about problems at the QAA, under Mr Randall's charge, have been chronicled by The THES since 1997. Readers may appreciate a round-up: Earlier this month, the QAA was forced to scrap its report on the quality of medicine teaching at Nottingham University. It admitted that its inspectors had insufficient evidence to support their critical findings. A teaching quality report at Sunderland University has been withheld pending legal action.

The QAA said that confirmed mistakes are one in every 200 teaching quality inspection reports. But these are not the only cases where the agency has apparently got things wrong.

An apparent breakdown of quality control at Thames Valley University, discovered and reported by the QAA only after a newspaper investigation in 1998, was missed by the agency's routine activities. After giving TVU a clean bill of health in audit and teaching quality reports, a special QAA report condemned the university, saying its systems were so bad that it did not deserve degree-awarding powers.

But The THES reported in late 1999 that the QAA investigation that condemned TVU was itself flawed. Documents showed that the QAA made errors of fact and interpretation in its report. TVU made corrections to a draft but the QAA simply altered certain key words in the final report. This left intact conclusions based on the errors. The QAA said it stood by the report and noted that its recommendations had been accepted by TVU's governors.

A routine audit of Derby University's franchise operation in Israel, in 1998, failed to spot serious shortcomings discovered later in a THES investigation. The QAA initially said that the university was "managing the project consistently, and demonstrating... good practice". But a special investigation, set up by the QAA two years after The THES 's reports, said that the operation, set up in 1996, had been managed in a way that "did not secure the quality and standards of programmes offered". The QAA said that many events from the second report occurred after the first report.

Appointment procedures have also caused concern. At the end of 1998, disaffected sources close to the QAA were so sure that Julie Swan would beat rivals to become the QAA's director of development that they announced her appointment in a spoof press release before the agency had finished interviewing for the post.

Ms Swan, a colleague of Mr Randall's from their time at the Law Society, was joined at the QAA by another Law Society colleague, Stewart Bushell. The QAA denied any impropriety and said that, although Mr Randall had personal discretion over appointments, interview panels included at least two people.

Institutions have complained about a failure to consult the sector. In November 1998, the agency wrote to vice-chancellors with a "proposal" to beef up checks on teaching quality standards. But after explaining the plans, the letter confirmed that the "proposal" had come into effect a month earlier.

The QAA does face financial scrutiny. In March last year it emerged that the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which funded the QAA to the tune of nearly £6 million in 1999-2000, demanded improvements to management and governance at the agency after its first audit.

The funding council called for reforms to improve strategic planning and accountability in 22 recommendations. These have apparently been implemented.

This week the QAA said it had no further comment to make on the issues.

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