Exam board faces £50,000 Ofqual fine for handling of qualifications fraud case

An awarding organisation is facing a fine of £50,000 over its handling of a high-profile case of alleged qualifications fraud in 2015.

The notice to impose a monetary penalty on Industry Qualifications, published today, is only the third such fine issued by Ofqual.

It stated: “Ofqual considers that IQ breached the conditions in relation to its approval and management of a college, the investigation of suspected malpractice at the college and the actions it took in respect of persons alleged to have been concerned in such malpractice.”

IQ confirmed the provider in question is Ashley Commerce College, in Ilford, which was subject to a BBC investigation also covered by FE Week.

We reported in May 2015 that IQ had to revoke 251 level two and three door-supervision and CCTV surveillance qualifications it certificated, after the college was exposed for allegedly allowing students to gain the qualifications illegally.

Ofqual’s report said that IQ had failed to “identify the potential for conflicts of interest to arise” or to manage any such conflicts when it approved the college to deliver its qualifications.

The head of the college was also an assessor and moderator for IQ qualifications and had a financial interest in the provider “such that it was in his interest for learners to pass assessments”, the report said.

The awarding organisation’s monitoring of the college was deemed “defective” as IQ had “failed to recognise” that the proportion of learner work reviewed by its external verifier was “substantially less” than was required by IQ’s policy, the report said.

IQ’s investigation into the incident was also branded “defective”.

The exams regulator said the awarding organisation could not produce records of “its investigative methodology”, “decisions it made during the investigation” nor of “the findings it made during or following the investigation”.

IQ’s response to allegations made by the head of the college was “flawed”, Ofqual said.

A “draft statement” which was “said to have been prepared by the head of the college” alleged that “241 learners had been complicit in malpractice”.

But Ofqual said that IQ “had not adequately investigated whether or not the allegations made in the (draft) statement were true” nor had it “notified the learners named in the (draft) statement that an allegation of malpractice had been made against them”.

Furthermore, the report said a signed version of the head’s statement was only available in December 2015 – eight months after IQ wrote to the affected learners.

The appeals process put in place by IQ was also deemed to be “flawed”, with a “disproportionately high” burden of proof.

The exams regulator initially set its intended fine at £60,000, having taken into account “the fact that IQ has commenced a comprehensive review its processes and procedures to secure ongoing compliance, and the desirability of allowing IQ to commit resources to that review”.

But this was subsequently reduced to £50,000, as it judged the initial amount “too high in view of the statutory maximum penalty in this case”.

In a statement, IQ said that “with hindsight, its investigation at Ashley Commerce College could have been more extensive” and that it “accepts that its management of appeals fell short of its own policy”.

But it refuted the other points raised by Ofqual, and hit out at the exams regulator for its refusal to meet with representatives of IQ during its investigation.

Raymond Clarke, IQ chief executive, said the notice was “not fair and will be challenged”.

Mr Clarke said: “It is a matter of significant concern that it has taken 22 months for Ofqual to reach this determination, a period during which Ofqual has steadfastly refused to meet with IQ, or allow any direct oral representation to those casting judgement on our actions and motives”.

The statement also alleged that Ofqual’s analysis was “flawed” and “fails to address significant weaknesses in policy and operation of the regulator”.

It comes after City and Guilds was fined £38,000 in August 2016 for the late issuing of more than 22,000 results, and Pearson was charged £85,000 in November 2016 for widespread certification failures.

A final decision on imposing the fine will be made by Ofqual on or after March 20, today’s report said.

IQ has repeatedly called – since the Ashley Commerce College scandal broke – for the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy to work with Ofqual to establish a panel to explore the issue.

This is especially the case for industries that “require individuals to have specified qualifications to obtain a license to work”.

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