Derby dumbs down to gain Israeli cash

July 23, 1999

Derby University has been admitting students to degree courses in Israel without agreed minimum entry qualifications and has withheld details of its operations from the Israeli regulating authority, it emerged this week.

Internal documents leaked to The THES reveal that Derby's senior managers skirted their own rules to lower entry standards to meet financial targets. They also planned to adopt a "minimalist" approach to new Israeli laws designed to clamp down on "cowboy" overseas operations and ignored complaints about "dumbing down" from their own academics who set up the Israeli programmes.

Derby has been denied a licence to provide degrees in Israel until the country's Higher Education Council is satisfied that it complies with new laws.

The news will embarrass British quality chiefs who failed to spot the problems when they reported in September last year on business and management courses, provided through a franchise with Inter College in Tel Aviv. The Quality Assurance Agency's report, which was described as "soft" by one Israeli official, found that Derby "has control of academic standards" and can be confident of full comparability with its home provision.

Under Derby's original collaboration agreement document, students could not be enrolled on undergraduate courses in Israel without the full Israeli matriculation certificate, the bagrut, or an international equivalent.

But documents show that this requirement was ignored by the director of Inter College, Avi Bitan. He was backed by senior managers in Derby, despite protests from business school academics running the courses.

The business school's leader of the Israeli programmes, Mark Challinor, complained last year to Derby's assistant registrar, Julie Stone, that the university's own rules were being breached. He wrote: "Avi (Bitan)'s comment that students do not need to possess a full matriculation certificate is not shared by the school. Our (collaborative arrangements) document clearly states that a full bagrut is the minimum entry requirement. Avi seems to be suggesting that we allow mature students to enter without this requirement."

Challinor said non-standard students in Derby would be admitted only if they completed an access or foundation course. "Please therefore do not register students who do not hold a bagrut," he wrote.

But the university, through the college, had already been admitting students without the bagrut as a financial necessity. Ms Stone and Derby's director of Israeli programmes, Mike Wiser, had agreed with Mr Bitan an informal policy to allow entry exemptions for mature students - defined by Derby as those over 28 - and to target them. This was despite Israeli law stipulating that students must be at least 30 years old if they are to be eligible for the very rare exemptions offered by Israeli universities.

A 1998 memo from Ms Stone to Mr Wiser notes the demands from the business school academics that only those with a bagrut should be enrolled. But she admits: "As you and I agreed with Avi, we have always registered students on the basis of an age-related policy. If we were not to do so, Avi is sure that we would fall way short of budget projections."

A number of student enrolments are now being investigated by the Israeli ministry for education. One mature student gained a degree in one year, with no prior formal qualifications.

Documents also show that last year Derby planned to adopt a "minimalist" approach to conforming to a new law that dictates that at least 30 per cent of programmes in Israel have to be delivered by academics primarily employed by the "parent" institution. A further document dated May this year reveals plans to employ more staff based in Israel to satisfy the requirement but notes: "It is acknowledged that this strategy has not been shared with HEC... The board may wish to discuss at what point, if at all, the strategy should be put to HEC."

A spokeswoman for Derby said this week that the "minimalist" approach was mooted 18 months ago, and has been superseded as the university now fully conforms to the rules.

"We have a commitment to delivering lifelong learning as well as complying with the law," she said. "Our QAA report was very positive." Rules were changed last month to ensure that no one below the age of 30 can be enrolled without a full bagrut.

QAA travails, page 3 Soapbox, page 16; People, page 9

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