Watchdog attacks Arts and Wales, but critic says bark worse than bite

Landmark investigations expose faults but raise questions over limited powers. Simon Baker writes

A university's process for closing courses is "not fit for purpose" while there are "serious shortcomings" in another's validation of foreign partners, two reports from the standards watchdog have found.

Following landmark investigations, the Quality Assurance Agency upheld complaints against the University of the Arts London over its handling of a restructure and against the University of Wales for its oversight of overseas partners.

The inquiries are the first full investigations to be completed by the QAA since it revised its "concerns" procedure last year to speed up the handling of complaints.

Inspectors were sent to the London College of Communication, part of the University of the Arts, after the watchdog received three complaints from students about course closures. In its report, the QAA concludes that while the institution had followed its own procedural rules, they were "not fit for the purpose of assuring the standards and quality of multiple courses being closed and run out simultaneously".

The inquiry found that standards were so badly affected by the disruption caused by staff being put at risk of redundancy that some students' marks were raised to compensate. The decision to investigate the complaints followed the closure of 16 courses and 26 full-time equivalent redundancies.

A spokeswoman for the University of the Arts said it "deeply" regretted the disruption, but added it had affected only a "small proportion of students".

The QAA said the University of Wales had failed to vet the new owners of a Singaporean business school that was offering the institution's degrees. Students at the Turning Point Business School had been left unsupported when the owners disappeared a year after acquiring the college in an unannounced sale.

The QAA inquiry found that the university had been "too dependent" on assertions made by the owners and had not checked the school's financial status. In a summary of its report, the auditor says that "the university's decision to accept the assertions of the new owners at face value ... seems culpably credulous".

The agency also investigated the university's links with colleges in Thailand and Malaysia after a BBC Wales programme last year uncovered a series of problems. The QAA says that the vetting of the institution's partner in Thailand - Accademia Italiana in Bangkok - was inadequate and its validations "flawed". It adds that there had been a lack of "due diligence" in vetting the Fazley International College in Kuala Lumpur, which was being run by Fazley Yaakob, a Malaysian pop star with a fake doctorate.

Meanwhile, an audit of overseas provision across the sector found problems in the university's links with another Singaporean institution, TCA College. Another review, also published by the QAA this week, found overall "weaknesses" in Wales' external validation processes.

In summarising the reports, the watchdog says "the shortcomings ... are serious and need to be addressed as a matter of urgency".

But Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, questioned whether quality assurance sanctions were sufficient. "Until we get a proper system of institutional accreditation for use in these kinds of cases, at the end of the day the QAA can only produce these reports," he said.

A university spokesman said that it had imposed a "moratorium" on all validations and would develop a completely new international strategy "embedded within Wales".

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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