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UK: QAA calls for tougher regulation of private sector

In the wake of the huge UK exam fallout from last week that resulted in the suspension of licences at 57 private colleges and three universities, Director of Quality Assurance at the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), Stephen Jackson, has said the UK’s current regulatory landscape is not robust enough to prevent against the level of fraud detected.

Extract from QAA website

"One way in which we could extend our effectiveness would be to be given statutory powers to inspect colleges”

“How can you guard against that sort of criminal behaviour through a peer review process – our methods are just not geared to dealing with those issues,” he told The PIE News. “Our process is based on trust; we recruit our reviewers from institutions.”

Currently in the UK, there are few barriers to entry into the private provider sector; a major problem according to Jackson. “Anyone can set up a college.. and through that, get access to funding sources like student loan support,” he related.

“Our methods are just not geared to dealing with those issues”

And without the authority of statutory powers, he sees QAA’s role falling short when it comes to monitoring the private sector.

“We are not a government organisation, we’re an independent body. Our authority, such as it is, comes from our member institutions,” he said. “One way in which we could extend our effectiveness would be to be given statutory powers to inspect colleges.”

Immigration Minister James Brokenshire confirmed last week that an investigation by UK Visas and Immigration and the National Crime Agency found that “much of the worst abuse” of fraudulent English testing and breach of immigration rules took place at London sub-campuses.

The QAA has been asked to carried out inquiries into the management of London campuses, the number of students involved, programmes they’re offering and how they’re ensuring the programmes are properly validated.

The probe will look at 14 universities with London campuses, including Glyndwr, one of the universities to have its highly trusted sponsor (HTS) status revoked last week.

“The Home Office has responsibility for procedural matters to do with the monitoring of student attendance and the issuing of confirmation of studies letters,” he said. “We have responsibility for the quality and standards of academic programmes.”

But he added that the QAA are not “Home Office police”.

The PIE Chat interview with Stephen Jackson

The PIE Chat interview with Stephen Jackson

“We don’t have that obligation or mindset about monitoring the responsibilities of institutions and it’s never been a problem with the publicly-funded institutions,” he added.

Expanding the organisation’s authority, however, could result in pushback from the higher education sector as a whole.

“I think our established institutions would not want us to have statutory powers, because our whole approach of peer review is based on this understanding between the Agency and institutions as autonomous bodies to manage their own quality and standards,” he said.

“We don’t have that obligation or mindset about monitoring the responsibilities of institutions and it’s never been a problem with the publicly-funded institutions”

One solution Jackson offered would be for QAA to have different regulatory powers for private and public instutions. “Increasingly I’m coming round to the view that we can’t easily apply the methodology to different types of institutions. I think private institutions do operate in a different way.”

Since the revocation of licences last week, a number of colleges have publicly declared that they will contest the suspensions.

Most recently, Professor Geoffrey Alderman, Principal of one of the affected institutions, Queensbury College, said in a statement: “I am particularly distressed and shocked that we were given no opportunity whatsoever to answer the accusations before the Home Office decision was made public.”

The college is in the process of mounting formal charges against the Home Office’s decision. “We intend to provide robust, verifiable answers to all its accusations,” Alderman said.

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