A group of British universities have reacted angrily to allegations that they have been operating illegally in South Africa.
In a statement issued on January 10, the South African ministry of education named 75 institutions that had failed to meet its registration requirements on time.
According to the statement, a number of foreign higher education institutions, including 17 from the United Kingdom, are "currently operating in South Africa, with either no legal presence or they have not applied for registration".
However, several named UK institutions claim they have never run courses in South Africa and are unsure why they have been targeted.
Unregistered institutions "are not to admit new students and are to inform current students of their registration status in writing". Those who do not comply could be forced to close their courses, which are normally delivered via local higher education providers.
Sheffield University has applied to register, but has had little contact with the authorities since.
A spokesperson said: "We are not running or validating any courses in South Africa. To say that we have been operating illegally is misleading. We are writing to the education minister to ask him to set the record straight. It could damage our reputation."
Also on the unregistered list are the universities of Leicester, Manchester and North London, which all claim to have no involvement in South Africa.
The University of London is on the list, but says its courses are distance learning so it is not required to register.
A Leicester spokesman said: "There have been negotiations in the past, but nothing has ever materialised. We are not aware of breaching any regulations in South Africa.
"Had this been the case, we would have expected the South African government to contact us. No communication has been received on this matter."
Private higher education courses must register with the South African Qualifications Authority and the education department. More than 700 applications have been received already, slowing up the bureaucratic processes considerably.
Nasima Badsha, head of higher education for the South African education department, admitted that registration had been problematic.
"There are some institutions on the 'not-registered' list that don't seem interested in applying," she said.
"The government does not automatically know when institutions decide to abandon courses, so has been assuming they would all be registering at some point. There are always problems with a new, dynamic process."
Other UK institutions, including Leeds Metropolitan University, Heriot-Watt, Hull and the Open University, claim to have submitted their registration documents before the November 1999 deadline.
Leeds Metropolitan University is sending its academic registrar to South Africa to sort things out.
Frank Griffiths, deputy vice-chancellor, said: "We believe we have discharged the requirements for registration, but recent legislation changes have caused some uncertainty. We would only ever operate overseas in complete compliance with the national government. If this cannot be achieved, we will not continue."
Dr Badsha said ways would be found to enable the UK institutions to comply. "There are several institutions on the unregistered list who did indeed begin the registration process, but there have been problems with their legal status. They will be given extensions to allow them to pursue the government's requirements," she said.