Vice-chancellor quits university that taught curry-making and kite-flying

Judith Judd,Ben Russell
Friday 13 November 1998 01:02

BRITAIN'S MOST colourful university vice-chancellor resigned yesterday, after a devastating watchdog's report said that degree standards could no longer be guaranteed.

Mike Fitzgerald, 47, who was the youngest ever university vice-chancellor when he was appointed in 1991 and who sports an earring and pony-tail, left Thames Valley University "in the interests of the university" after the unprecedented move by higher education regulators.

They said they no longer had confidence in the university's ability to award degrees. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) said standards at the university were "at risk" and the Higher Education Funding Council announced it was sending in anexternal review team to work with the university on an action plan. Thames Valley's colourful courses have included kite-flying and Indian cookery.

Universities cannot be stripped of their degree-awarding powers, but yesterday's move represents the most serious action ever taken to censure academics over standards.

Andrew Pakes, president of the National Union of Students, said the report had serious implications for the university's 28,000 students. He said: "Students will be paying cash over the table to study and they want value for money. If you buy a jumper and find it's got a hole in it you can take it back to the shop. You can't take back three years of your life."

John Randall, the QAA chief executive, said: "Standards at Thames Valley are at risk. It is vital that urgent steps are taken to protect the interests of students and to secure public confidence in the university."

Baroness Blackstone, the higher education minister, demanded "firm and decisive action to address this failure".

Alarm about the former Polytechnic of West London, based in Ealing and Slough, surfaced last year when the university invited the agency to investigate allegations of "academic dumbing down".

Because of an industrial dispute more than 200,000 pieces of students' work had been left unmarked and senior managers proposed that students should pass their exams with marks of 30 per cent rather than 40 per cent.

The QAA report suggests that the university was a shambles, with managers unable to keep track of students and their marks. Management, admissions policies and quality controls are all heavily criticised. Independent consultants found no evidence that people had been awarded degrees they did not deserve, but did find "some evidence that the university may have lost sight of some basic principles of quality assurance which should be commonplace at an institution with independent degree-awarding powers."

Members of the research team found "disgruntled and disbelieving external examiners, some of whose reports we consider to be serious indictments of the university."

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors said the case was unique and there was no evidence that standards had slipped. But Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool University said that some other new universities might also need help in maintaining standards.

Thames Valley governors said they were taking decisive action. Sheila Forbes, chairman of the governors, said students were being effectively taught and "armed with their qualification from the university do make a positive contribution in their places of work and in their communities."

Thames Valley's troubles started after it introduced its New Learning Environment; replacing traditional degrees with "resource-based learning" in which students were free to make up "mix and match" degrees from a number of modules of study.

The report said: "We encountered a significant number of staff who expressed concerns that reductions in the amount and intensity of student assessment under the New Learning Environment had seriously jeopardised the standards of the resulting degrees."

The report stressed that Thames Valley university did attract some high calibre students who reached the accepted degree standard.

But it said: "... there is a question to be asked whether the admissions policy is encouraging unreasonable expectations among students who are unlikely to achieve that standard, however much support they are given."

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