Lack of a single accreditation system for all degrees offered in the UK casts doubt over the value of some qualifications. Cherry Canovan reports.
Now is the time of year when thousands of international students flood into the United Kingdom to begin degree courses. Many of these will take up places in recognised British universities. But some will enter private-sector universities offering non-UK degrees - and many fear that a lack of regulation in the sector may be causing confusion over the status of the courses being offered.
Many private institutions offer overseas degrees and most are academically reputable and fully accredited.
But a lack of clear information about standards has led to worries that some may be offering degrees that are in essence worthless and has led to calls for rigorous investigation of institutions' accreditation status.
At Richmond, the American International University in London, president Walter McCann is keen to stress his institution's credentials, particularly as, he says, some others are causing controversy.
Richmond's degrees are validated on both sides of the Atlantic, through the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools in the US and the Open University's validation service in the UK. Richmond is a not-for-profit organisation that started out providing study abroad for US students and graduated to offering full degrees.
Mr McCann is worried, however, that the reputation of colleges such as his own is being damaged by confusion with institutions not complying with such rigorous standards. He cites one case where a North American education authority confused Richmond with another organisation and sent out a mailing denouncing the college.
Part of the problem is the decentralised system for accrediting universities in the US. Whereas in the UK a university must be recognised by a royal charter or act of parliament, the US system is more complex. Because of the size of the country and the number of institutions, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation splits its accrediting bodies into six regional organisations as well as those for specialist, religious and professional qualifications.
Institutions such as Richmond, the British American College London and the American InterContinental University (AIU) insist that accreditation from one of the six regional bodies is the hallmark of a high-quality institution.
At the AIU, president Rafael Lago said: "Whether a university is accredited is usually an indication that its curriculum has passed an evaluation that has concluded that the quality of its programmes is comparable to other universities. The six regional bodies give the most prestigious accreditation."
One area where confusion can arise is that a US university must be licensed by a US state. Licensing is a legal requirement, not a substitute for accreditation. But some advertise their licence as though it were an end in itself.
Another problem is that standards for licensing vary markedly between states, with some investigating applications rigorously while others prefer the "rubber stamp" approach. States that have been accused of having confused licensing laws include Alabama, California, Hawaii, Iowa and Louisiana.
Others have found ways of glossing over the accreditation issue. Institutions may use terms such as "recognised", "authorised" or "approved". In many situations these terms have no legal meaning and can be very misleading. A college may even feel able to say it is "government approved" because it is approved for taxation purposes.
Colleges may also be able to imply a relationship with an established UK body through various means. The University of London has encountered problems with these sorts of tactics with regard to its external degree programme, for which it sets and marks exam papers.
Marion McNeill, head of the student admissions department for the external programme, explained: "Registered students receive no face-to-face tuition or academic support, just syllabuses, subject guides and past examination papers.
"There are a number of private institutions worldwide, with no formal recognition by the University of London, that happen to offer tuition for our degrees. Some institutions claim that they have a connection to offer tuition. They may be offering tuition, but they do not have any formal relationship with us. We don't franchise or 'twin'," she added.
One institution that disputes that the accreditation system is unclear is University College Kensington, an institution based in London with about 1,500 students. It describes itself as "a traditional university college campus offering both undergraduate and graduates (sic) academic programmes".
Its website points out that it "is chartered and incorporated as a degree-granting institution with the Secretary of the State of Iowa to award Bachelor, Master, and Doctorate degrees in a wide range of majors". It says it awards degrees through a "unique corporate agreement with other institutions".
Steve Johnson, the college's admissions director, said he did not believe the system was overly complex. "There is no confusion," he said. "Our students know exactly what they are doing and what they are registering for. It is pretty clear."
And he said that there was no legal requirement for the college to be accredited through one of the regional organisations. "It is not compulsory for people to be accredited," he said.
He added that claims that a non-accredited degree might not be recognised by other institutions were "a marketing strategy", and that many UK universities had accepted University College Kensington students on to courses at first degree and masters level. The college's website says that "our academic programmes and awards have been widely accepted by numerous UK universities".
Institutions whose accreditation status is currently unclear include Canterbury-based Warnborough University. Warnborough's website says it "evolved" from Warnborough College, which was at the centre of a scandal in the mid-1990s after a host of students walked out, claiming they had thought they were enrolling at a college of the University of Oxford.
On its website, Warnborough explains its accreditation position thus:
"British and most European universities are self-accrediting. However, changes in university education and the increasing number of 'virtual universities' and online degree programmes has (sic) created a need for external accreditation for open and distance learning qualifications. Warnborough University is also seeking accreditation to ensure that its standards are comparable to universities in the United Kingdom and Europe. An Accreditation Committee was established for this purpose in 2000. Warnborough is now a candidate for Quality Mark accreditation for Learner Support with the British Association for Open Learning."
The association describes itself as "the national cross-sector association for open learning, drawing its membership from the key areas of open and flexible learning activity".
The uncertainty is compounded by confusion over Warnborough's country of origin. Under the heading "Warnborough University charter and degree-granting authority formalised", it says: "In early 1997, Warnborough University was officially incorporated in the Republic of Ireland. This suited the raison d'etre for Warnborough as a global university rooted in the European tradition. In 1998, its incorporation was amended by special resolution to include its charter with degree-granting status. Therein, it is clearly defined that Warnborough University is a global university without national boundaries. It is not an Irish university and makes no claims as such, nor is it a British or American University."
Meanwhile, at the American University in London, the chancellor, Hussain Al Zubaidi, told The THES that it had 2,000 students on 17 campuses around the world. It offers an "American degree programme" but has no US regional accreditation.
"We have applied to the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools for accreditation, but that is still in process," said Dr Zubaidi, but added that quality of education, rather than accreditation, should be the key factor. "The quality of education is highly important, and we are guaranteeing it to a high standard," he said. "Our main objective is to give the right education and equip our students with the knowledge they need for the workplace."
But not everyone agrees with this assessment. At the British Accreditation Council for Independent Further and Higher Education, a voluntary body for private institutions, chief executive Robin Laidlaw said: "The worst problem is to come out with a degree that is worth nothing, because nobody recognises it - that is what worries me about unaccredited degrees. Also, if you want to transfer... there could be no credit transfer." As a common feature of US degrees is that they allow students to transfer between institutions, this factor could be crucial.
Other problems he cites include students having problems doing graduate degrees because their first degree is unrecognised, and issues surrounding course quality.
So what measures are in place to regulate the sector? The answer is very few. A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "As long as they are saying their degree will not come from a UK university, if they want to set up a university there is not a problem as long as they are not claiming anything which isn't so."
The Quality Assurance Agency, meanwhile, looks only at universities that receive public funding, and although a few private institutions have subscribed so they can be audited to the same standard, this is entirely voluntary.
Other avenues for pursuing problems could be through the trading standards authorities or even the Advertising Standards Authority. A trading standards official said he had never heard of such a case being brought, although it might be possible under the Education Reform Act.
At the fully accredited British American College London, Marcel van Miert argues that further regulation of institutions offering non-UK degrees in Britain is not necessary, but that what is needed is more clarity of information.
And at the AIU - accredited in the US and in the UK through the Open University - Mr Lago believes the system is working.
He said: "Consumers nowadays are very well informed. Students are becoming consumers and their number one question is: do you offer a university degree, followed by are you accredited or not."
But Mr Laidlaw said: "The British Accreditation Council is fully in favour of compulsory accreditation. There is no real control outside the areas the government pays for."
While the system continues to be so opaque, some students are bound to be disappointed. Accrediting organisations
<P class=MsoPlainText> KOSHER COLLEGES AND WHO PAYS
Accrediting organisations<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /> <o:p> </o:p>
<P class=MsoPlainText> The six organisations below are recognised by the US Council for <o:p> </o:p>
<P class=MsoPlainText> Higher Education Accreditation. Recognition by one of them shows that a course is widely accepted. There are a few other organisations that can legitimately accredit universities, but also many that make false claims to have this power. If in doubt, check the CHEA’s website at www.chea.org </a> . <o:p> </o:p>
- Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools <o:p> </o:p>
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges <o:p> </o:p>
- North Central Association of Colleges and Schools <o:p> </o:p>
- Northwest Association of Schools, Colleges and Universities <o:p> </o:p>
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools <o:p> </o:p>
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges <o:p> </o:p>
<P class=MsoPlainText> Who chooses an American University in the UK? <o:p> </o:p>
<P class=MsoPlainText> Many of the universities offering US degrees in Britain play on the fact that the traditional American “liberal arts” degree model can be very attractive to the undecided student, as it offers later specialisation. <o:p> </o:p>
<P class=MsoPlainText> Students who attend these courses may want this broader study, but may prefer the UK to the US for a variety of reasons - the US may be too many time zones away from home or there may be family ties to the UK. <o:p> </o:p>
<P class=MsoPlainText> They also need to be well heeled. Fees can be £8,000 a year or more. <o:p> </o:p>
<P class=MsoPlainText> The institutions that spoke to The THES said they recruited students from up to 100 countries. One, British American College London, broke down its degree students as follows: <o:p> </o:p>
- European Union (excluding UK) - 19 per cent <o:p> </o:p>
- Canada and US - 17 per cent <o:p> </o:p>
- Middle East - 16 per cent <o:p> </o:p>
- Asia - 13 per cent <o:p> </o:p>
- Other European countries - 11 per cent <o:p> </o:p>
- UK - 10 per cent <o:p> </o:p>
- Africa - 9 per cent <o:p> </o:p>
- Latin America - 3 per cent <o:p> </o:p>
- Australasia - 2 per cent <o:p> </o:p>
<P class=MsoPlainText> Most colleges also took a significant number of students from US universities who came to the UK for an international study semester or year. <o:p> </o:p>