The university that's hip, cool and loses its degree results

That's crisis-ridden Thames Valley. By Ros Wynne-Jones
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The Independent Online
Graduation ceremonies for Thames Valley University last week were more nerve-racking than most. Some students had found out only hours before whether they had passed or failed.

The degree results crisis, which lecturers say was only averted because a university task force dedicated to rectifying a "catalogue of administrative errors" stepped in, is just the latest in an extraordinary saga of controversial events which has enveloped the university in recent months.

So far these have included a memo, seen by the Independent on Sunday, ordering lecturers to drop the pass mark for resit examinations from 40 to 30 per cent, a cut in the number of modules studied by students from eight to six per year, lengthy industrial action by lecturers, one student threatening to sue the university for breach of contract, and examination results going missing last summer - leading to a crisis where angry students were unable to find out whether they had passed or failed their finals and end-of-year exams.

Staff and students were last week reluctant to speak out. The last TVU employee to do so, senior psychology lecturer, Dr Martin Roiser - who expressed fears that the university was engaging in "dumbing down" - was threatened with libel action. Last night he declined to comment, and colleagues say they are afraid of losing their jobs if they speak to the media.

The man at the centre of the controversies over the way in which Thames Valley University is run is its vice-chancellor, Dr Mike Fitzgerald, an enthusiastic moderniser whose trademarks are bleached feathery hair somewhat akin to that of a Bay City Roller and a lozenge-shaped earring. The youngest vice-chancellor in the country, Dr Fitzgerald's hip image is entirely in keeping with a university which grew out of a college which produced an enviable number of rock stars.

The university's campus in west London stands on the site of the former Ealing School of Art, whose students included Pete Townshend of The Who, Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones and the late Freddie Mercury of Queen. Perhaps it was with that legacy in mind that the vice- chancellor endorsed the introduction of a rock music diploma. Certainly Dr Fitzgerald said the course acknowledged rock music as a legitimate field of study.

Quite why he agreed to a course in kite flying was much less clear, but the 10-week programme of instruction, entitled "Kites and Kite Flying", has also been run at the Ealing site. The course introduces students to the history of the kite, teaches them how to construct one and, most importantly, how to get the best out of its aerodynamic properties in flight.

The university - which has 22,000 students, 64 per cent of them part- time and 40 per cent on non-degree courses studying for Higher National Diplomas and other vocational qualifications - stands alone in stating categorically that its primary purpose is for teaching and learning.

Dr Fitzgerald has also pioneered a new and innovative style of learning at TVU, called the "New Learning Environment". The NLE, which is based at a flagship high-technology resource centre on TVU's other campus in Slough, designed by Richard Rogers, places an emphasis on students teaching themselves at their own pace and through remote learning.

The vice-chancellor has found himself at loggerheads with his staff almost since the outset of his TVU reforms. "It must be uncomfortable for him," says one acquaintance. "Mike is the sort who has always been a good union member and been on the left of educationalists in this country, yet now he's in direct confrontation with the Union. I believe that he genuinely thinks his reforms will benefit TVU in the long run, but he has adopted a very 'if you're not for me you're against me' attitude which has polarised the staff."

TVU, which confirmed that its lawyers were in contact with Dr Roiser "over comments he made against the university", itself admits that external examiners' reports from last summer suggested that in some areas standards could have been com- promised by administrative failures. A statement also agreed that in a few subject areas, weaker students might have fallen "below the standards to be expected of a graduate".

The beginning of this academic year has been fraught with difficulties, lecturers say, including late and clashing timetables. Eight weeks into this term, some students still do not know whether they have passed their first- or second-year examinations, while others have not received their grants because their Local Education Authorities have not been notified by TVU. Meanwhile, academics are still waiting to be awarded their nationally agreed 2.9 per cent pay rise.

Staff say they are as frustrated by the rigidity of the administration at TVU as by the chaos. "We are very concerned," says one lecturer, "that as staff members we have very little influence any more over exam marking, timetabling or course design. All power has been centralised to bodies which are unable to cope with day-to-day administration."

A spokeswoman for NATFE, the new universities' teachers and lecturers union, said she was concerned that "staff at TVU are feeling increasingly alienated from the way things are run and the amount of control they have over academic issues".

Last month, TVU invited in the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education to assess the courses and teaching available to its students. The QAA reported last week that "TVU has serious problems, but we have found no evidence of a deliberate 'dumbing down'".

Its chief executive, John Randall, concluded that "whilst there are serious problems, they must be placed in context. In many areas of the university teaching is good and learning effective. However, the university must tackle urgently the administrative weaknesses and industrial relations problems that are damaging student support."

Last week, Dr Fitzgerald was unavailable for comment as he was presiding over the university's graduation ceremonies. In a statement, Thames Valley said: "Final year students have received information about whether or not they have passed or failed and have been attending award ceremonies. Due to the previous administrative difficulties which we have openly acknowledged, there have been a small number of problems. These are being addressed as a matter of urgency." It was not felt "appropriate or possible for the university to respond" to questions of mismanagement at the university.