British universities are getting their fingers burned by dabbling "naively" in Malaysia's unregulated and rapidly expanding private higher education sector.
Experts in Kuala Lumpur have warned that many institutions are putting Britain's reputation on the line by striking up partnerships with private colleges that are not recognised by Malaysian authorities.
They are signing up to validate unapproved programmes leading to so-called 3+0 degrees, where students take the whole course at the partner private college in Malaysia.
This exposes them to the risk of sub-franchising by partner institutions.
Ted Edmondson, director of the British Council in Malaysia, said: "It is pure naivety."
Ian Tan, manager of the Education Counselling Service in Kuala Lumpur, said:
"They need to be more savvy when it comes to looking for partners. They need to do more research before jumping in."
The criticisms follow a scathing report from the Quality Assurance Agency in November last year, which found weaknesses in three out of six inspected partnerships between British universities and Malaysian colleges.
The QAA said courses run by Liverpool John Moores University, the University of Hertfordshire and Robert Gordon University were not up to scratch. Liverpool John Moores has since pulled out, while Hertfordshire has been running a publicity campaign to rescue its reputation.
British institutions have been keen to forge links with colleges wanting to run 3+0 courses since recruitment in Malaysia - Britain's biggest overseas student market - plummeted after the currency crisis hit.
Latest figures show that in June last year there were 22,000 students on 3+0 courses, of whom 16,000 were working towards a British degree.
Tony Crocker, English language and examinations manager for the British Council in Malaysia, said there were now concerns that Malaysia's campaign to become a regional centre for higher education, importing students from countries such as China and Indonesia, could lead to sub-franchising.
"If there is no regulation of locally delivered qualifications you could end up with a back-door into a British degree," he said.