Monday, 26 December 2005



Earlier this month the Open University held a meeting with representatives of all its accredited institutions to tell them what it intends to do to deal with the "Limited Confidence" outcome of the audit of its collaborative provision undertaken by the Quality Assurance Agency last May. The result of this audit, and the manner in which the OU responds to it, are likely to have profound implications for the way in which all British institutions of higher education manage their collaborative arrangements in the future.

The "Limited Confidence" verdict cannot have come as any surprise to those familiar with OU procedures, as implemented through its validation arm, Open University Validation Services - OUVS.

When in 1992 the polytechnics were enabled to become universities, and were freed thereby from supervision by the Council for National Academic Awards, the CNAA itself was shut down. Realizing that this closure was going to leave a great many other mainly specialist institutions without anyone to award degrees to their students, the British government prevailed upon the OU to take on this role. So was born OUVS, whose methodology has until recently been based upon the CNAA model.

This model requires academic standards to be benchmarked against national norms, and places enormous responsibility on external examiners to ensure that these norms are adhered to in institutions that OUVS accredits. The major means by which OUVS assures itself that academic standards and quality of programme delivery are appropriate are the verdicts of the external examiners, and the annual monitoring reports that each accredited institution must provide.

The Open University itself, and its own academic staff, have historically taken little interest in the daily work of OUVS, which has been permitted an astonishing degree of independence from the university in whose name it grants thousands of degrees each year.

In the summer of 2003 this cosy arrangement was dealt a nasty blow. The QAA undertook an audit of a small Business programme that the OU, through OUVS, accredited for delivery at the Kolding institute in southern Denmark. The Kolding report (available on the QAA website at paints a picture of an institution that had minimal reporting lines to the university - the OU - that granted degrees to its students. OUVS appears to have taken little interest in the academic activities of the Danish institution. The external examiners' reports would not be read routinely by anyone in the university beyond the confines of OUVS. Kolding's annual monitoring reports might or might not be read at university level. Kolding itself apparently had no contact with the OU's own Business School. The final sentence of the audit report damned not merely the particular arrangements that the OU had in place at Kolding but, explicitly, the entire programme-validation model that OUVS operated at its accredited institutions.

The Kolding report painted a gloomy picture. But there was in fact no evidence that academic standards had been sacrificed or compromised. The reporting line from Kolding to the OU's headquarters in Milton Keynes needed repair and upgrading. But nowhere did the Kolding auditors declare that students were receiving OU degrees who did not actually deserve them. The auditors themselves were either unaware of the history of OUVS, and that it was the successor body to the CNAA, or deliberately chose to ignore this vital historical context. They brought to their work a narrow view, focused exclusively on the QAA's own preferred accreditation model. Their report reflected a total and totally uncritical acceptance of that model.

When the Kolding report was published the OU came out of its corner fighting. Whilst agreeing that procedures could be improved, and that the relationship between the OU, OUVS and accredited institutions could be strengthened, the accreditation model was defended.

Now, two years later, the model has been all but totally abandoned.

Last May the QAA audited the OU's entire collaborative provision. The audit team's report was published in October []. Unsurprisingly, the accreditation model was again condemned. The language used by this latest team of auditors echoed that of the Kolding team. And in the wake of this latest "Limited Confidence" report the OU has rolled over. Practically every demand ("recommendation") of the QAA is to be met, in full. In the process the interests of the OU's 45 or so loyal accredited institutions are to be comprehensively sacrificed.

Of course this is not the way the OU is spinning the story. Representatives of accredited institutions whom senior OUVS officers met on 7 December were told that the OU's accreditation model would be preserved but that another, termed 'associate' status, was to be created, and that over a fairly limited period of time each accredited institution would be told whether it could remain 'accredited', or whether it was to become merely 'associated.' The associate model will - naturally - follow closely the diktats of the QAA as set forth in its October 2005 report. This will involve significant extra cost, which accredited - sorry, associated - institutions will have to bear.

Why the OU has decided to go down this route is a puzzle. Granted, a "Limited Confidence" verdict is unwelcome. But it is not the end of the world. The QAA is not the sole repository of wisdom on accreditation matters. QAA auditors are not infallible. It would be a very sorry state of affairs indeed were they to be encouraged to regard themselves as such.

Nor is the QAA-kitemarked accreditation model the only one that will guarantee a quality education grounded in robust academic standards.

Professor Geoffrey Alderman

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