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Stephen Jackson, Director of Quality Assurance, QAA

In the wake of a Home Office investigation that led to the suspension of 57 private UK colleges and international recruitment at three universities, The PIE News spoke to the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA)’s Director of Quality Assurance Stephen Jackson about QAA’s own inquiry into the management of London branch campuses.

The PIE: Can you explain what the QAA is doing in its inquiry into London campuses?

"I was as shocked as anybody else by the BBC revelations. Our methods are just not geared to dealing with those issues"

SJ: We are looking at the arrangements in place for the management of London campuses, using our basic review methodology for partner institutions that deliver transnational education. We have a series of questions: the number of students involved, programmes they’re offering, how they’re ensuring those programmes are properly validated, and so on. It’s essentially an information gathering exercise. From time to time we do thematic inquiries on topics of current relevance, and because of the Home Office’s interest we have agreed to conduct this inquiry to see whether there was any substance behind the Home Office’s concerns about the practices on some campuses.

“The Home Office’s allegation was that these campuses were being used to give legitimacy to colleges that had failed their tests for highly trusted sponsor status”

The PIE: To what extent has what you’re doing been shaped or impacted by the Home Office investigation?

SJ: This is an issue the Home Office raised with us some months ago, and we agreed that we would gather the evidence. Their allegation was that these campuses were being used to give legitimacy to colleges that had failed their tests for highly trusted sponsor status.

The rationale as offered by universities in the more remote parts of the UK is that London campuses give them the opportunity to recruit international students. But Glyndwr [University], which was named in the Home Office statement, had gone into partnership with a failed educational oversight college, and that was what had triggered the Home Office’s concern.

The PIE: Where do your lines of inquiry overlap with the investigations the Home Office is conducting into the three universities that were named?

SJ: They don’t really. The Home Office has responsibility for procedural matters to do with the monitoring of student attendance and the issuing of confirmation of studies letters. We have responsibility for the quality and standards of academic programmes. Attendance is a sensitive issue and universities haven’t in the past traditionally kept registers, but it is a requirement for international students with visas to have their attendance recorded.

The PIE: That’s quite a recent policy – what do you make of it? It’s been quite controversial.

“The whole ethos of universities is one of an academic community which shares responsibility for the learning experience of students, and we don’t want to lose that”

SJ: The Home Office clearly has an agenda about restricting immigration and ensuring that students who come to study in the UK are here to benefit from the higher education system, and they are trying to outlaw any institutions which are abusing those responsibilities. It’s difficult. I think none of us wants to see a highly policed university system in the UK. I think the whole ethos of universities is one of an academic community which shares responsibility for the learning experience of students, and we don’t want to lose that – but at the same time, we can’t condone inappropriate behaviour by institutions and we recognise the need to ensure that students are bona fide.

The PIE: There’s some concern that quality assurance isn’t watertight…

SJ: I don’t think it is. I saw the Panorama programme [revealing systematic cheating on a TOEIC exam at four London colleges], I was as shocked as anybody else. The scale of impersonation was shocking. How you can guard against that sort of criminal behaviour through a peer review process – our methods are just not geared to dealing with those issues. Our process is based on trust; we recruit our reviewers from institutions.

We’re not Home Office police. 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. There’s an ethos in higher education which is very well established. It’s a very different situation in some of the private organisations. I wouldn’t say it’s commonplace across the sector; there are many private organisations which are doing a perfectly good job, but there are obviously some others as well.

“We’re not Home Office police. We don’t have that obligation or mindset”

The PIE: You investigated the colleges featured in the documentary through your concerns scheme, didn’t you?

SJ: Yes, we investigated Eden and Leyton College. Both have gone out of business. Our reports were critical – not just for the issues that were identified by the programme, but events had sort of overtaken our reporting activity.

The PIE: Had their practices changed considerably since you last reviewed them? They received good reviews previously.

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