A full review into Belfast's prestigious Union Theological College (UTC) is being brought forward following a highly critical report, it can be revealed.
The 165-year-old institution, which is run by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, was heavily criticised by an education watchdog as having "the potential to put academic standards at risk".
It can now be revealed that UTC - which is already the subject of a separate review by Queen's University, for whom it delivers all undergraduate degree courses in theology - will be subject to a full review by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) "within six to nine months" rather than in 2020.
In a just-published report by the QAA, damning criticism about the college potentially putting academic standards at risk occurs no fewer than six times.
The QAA monitors standards in higher education institutions across the UK.
The watchdog's inspectors looked at a number of aspects of teaching, learning and assessment specifically related to the courses run by the Presbyterian Theological Faculty Ireland (PTFI).
A spokesman for UTC said the college had made "significant progress", but conceded "there is still some work to be done" and added: "The college is working fully with the QAA."
Rachael Gee, head of assurance at the QAA, said a full review of UTC due in 2020 had been brought forward to 2019 as a result of the latest report, and that the college had been informed.
"If any monitoring visit receives an outcome of 'further improvement required', we bring forward the review to between six and nine months to make sure that the provider is meeting the appropriate standards," she explained.
"UTC has been told the full review is being brought forward. We confirmed that when we published the report."
In the event of a negative full review next year, Ms Gee said: "A direct consequence is that they would be made a legacy Tier Four sponsor, so they would not be able to recruit any more international students."
A number of specific failings were mentioned in the QAA's comprehensive assessment carried out in October, which relates to programmes unconnected to Queen's. They include:
• Incomplete documentation of the academic framework for PTFI programmes and alignment with the framework for higher education qualifications
• Faculty failure to monitor and review teaching, learning and assessment across all pathways and within all courses and modules.
• No formal defined mechanism to consider and respond to issues raised by external examiners.
UTC said it was continuing to work on improvements.
A spokesman added: "We welcome the fact that the QAA said in their report that the college is making progress with continuing to monitor, review and enhance its higher education provision since the October 2017 monitoring visit, but further improvement is required. The areas the college is working on include terms of reference and membership of each of its academic committees, a robust protocol for the appointment of PTFI external examiners, and clear evidence of student involvement in all decisions related to PTFI and the ministry training pathway."
UTC has 204 students at present, 173 of whom are studying for theology degrees at Queen's.
Another 31 students are preparing to enter the Presbyterian ministry by studying on courses run by the PTFI.
The report acknowledges that Queen's "has recently undertaken a review of its relationship with the college in September 2018 and the report of this review is not yet published".
There has been speculation, however, that the university intends to sever its links with the historic institution.
A spokeswoman for Queen's refused to speculate on any possible split.
"The university has received a copy of the QAA educational oversight report and is considering the findings. We have no further comment to make," she said.
It is believed that one of the factors in QUB's decision to re-examine its relationship with Union College was the suspension of Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick after comments he made about the ages of his employer's staff.