Awards rivals trade blows over standards

April 18, 1997

A feud between two overseas education providers has been condemned by the British Council as "very bad for British education", writes Phil Baty.

Alastair Somerville Ford, chief executive of the Institute of Commercial Management, is accusing rival awards body the Association of Business Executives of allowing and promoting the sale of questionable qualifications to overseas students without proper regard for educational standards.

The 25-year-old ABE has denied the allegations, which focus on its operations in Kenya. But it has agreed there were some "administrative" problems with a sister company and has launched a counteroffensive against Mr Somerville Ford.

The dispute has alarmed the British Council. Bill Harvey, council director in Nairobi, said he was concerned the name of British education was being maligned. "Many people in Africa spend their life savings to buy a British education," he said. "We want to present it as a quality service. I want to stress that the British Council has nothing whatsoever to do with either the ABE or the ICM."

Mr Somerville Ford's accusations centre on the ABE's fledgling sister company the International Association of Business Executives. The IABE was incorporated in London in May 1995 and operates from the same Wimbledon address as the ABE. It was set up, says the ABE, "to act as a validating body for courses provided by others".

The ABE denies allegations that the IABE is selling invalid qualifications. "The ABE has nothing to hide," it said in a press statement. "It is not going to be distracted by Mr Somerville Ford and intends to continue providing programmes both directly and through the sister companies it has formed," it says.

But John Fyfe, the ABE's non-executive chairman, has conceded that there were some problems with the IABE operation. "We have found some administrative things that we have to tighten," he said. "They are quite minor, but are still important. We discovered delays and administration problems that we have to put right. We have 80 colleges all over the world, so it would be easy for someone to find one somewhere to criticise. The main problem was that certificates were being issued at the Africa end. But we are honourable people. I don't get paid a penny, but I've been caught up in the crossfire and it has been horrible."

Some of Mr Somerville Ford's criticisms have backfired. He slated the ABE for having on its board Gerald Stockdale, former principal of the Swansea Institute of Higher Education who left after criticism of the institute's overseas operations. Dr Stockdale was not on the ABE board, but was once chairman of Mr Somerville Ford's ICM.

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