Institute slated for overseas courses

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The Independent Online
A college in Wales mismanaged the degree courses it offered in Malaysia, government auditors said yesterday.

A report by the National Audit Office on overseas courses run by Swansea Institute of Higher Education uncovered a series of management errors, and questioned whether the 33 foreign trips in four years taken by the college's principal represented value for money.

The auditors identified problems with planning, student registration, control of certificates and deficiencies in financial controls connected with overseas activities.

The report warns other colleges to learn "important lessons" from the institute's experience or risk devaluing Britain's reputation for high degree standards in the eyes of potential foreign students.

Concerns were first raised over Swansea Institute's overseas programme last June, when external examiners said in a report that scripts for an MBA course submitted by students in Malaysia were being marked more leniently than those from students taking the same course in Wales.

The college's overseas quality controls were also questioned in a report by the Higher Education Quality Council, prompting a National Audit Office investigation.

Eight areas of concern highlighted by auditors included shortcomings in the institute's management accounts which meant the full costs of different courses could not be calculated, though some were probably not economic to run.

Financial controls on travel and contracts for agency work abroad were also inadequate, risking excessive spending.

The report raises serious questions over the value of overseas trips made by the principal, Dr Gerald Stockdale, at a total cost of pounds 65,000. The funding council suggests 18 trips to Kenya, costing pounds 25,000, were "ill-judged", and disproportionate to the income from courses run there.

It also questioned Dr Stockdale's 1992 contract, which provided him with pounds 314,000 plus pension enhancements if he lost his job other than for disciplinary reasons. After resigning under pressure from governors last July, he accepted a settlement worth pounds 127,000.

Swansea Institute yesterday said it fully accepted the report's findings, and agreed there had been insufficient control mechanisms.

It said all weaknesses identified had been addressed and the Institute had been reorganised internally in the light of the findings.

It now had a new governing body, principal and senior management team, and the academic structure had been radically overhauled.

The National Audit Office echoed warnings from the Higher Education Quality Council made late last year that UK universities and higher education institutes must tighten monitoring of overseas courses.

An audit by HEQC found weaknesses in quality controls of foreign programmes, which are worth billions of pounds to British institutions.

Yesterday's report said universities should learn lessons from Swansea if similar problems were not to arise elsewhere. It called on the Higher Education Funding Council to issue guidelines on managing overseas activities.