Bogus universities are worrying the Italian university ministry and agencies that advise home and foreign students.
Advertising in the press, the universities promise, for a hefty fee, "a degree for everyone" or that "you too can have a degree without difficulty". Prices range from Pounds 4,000 to occasionally ten times as much.
The ministry issued "blacklists" of bogus degree mills in 1993 and 1994, and is now updating it. There are almost 100 in Italy, but legally little can be done to stop the often ingenious and ludicrous scams.
Bogus universities operating in Italy generally claim parent-universities in other countries. An Italian can, for example, obtain a degree from the Italian branch of "Kensington University", which is not off Brompton Road, but in California. Then there is the Italian branch of "Northwest London University", or the "Melchnikov Institute" in Naples, which claims links with Odessa, or various self-styled institutions claiming legitimacy from universities in Ecuador, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Spain, the United States, and Latvia.
Italy's National Academic Recognition and Information Centre tries to keep track and to warn prospective students who seek its advice. It also keeps the ministry informed, and regularly meets other European agencies to exchange information.
"We have several cardboard boxes full of data on these institutions," said centre spokeswoman Silvia Capucci."Some are amazingly ingenious. They will offer to count working years for credits, set up a couple of weekend seminars, then the student pays his or her money and receives a degree. The degrees are an orgy of fake parchment, gothic script, booming declarations in Latin and/or 'olde' English, sealing wax and ribbons."
"Often the clients of these bogus universities are people trying to upgrade themselves," said Ms Capucci. "It could, for instance, be a building contractor who has a successful small building firm. He may like the idea of hanging an engineering degree on his wall and having his secretary address him as dottore. It will also increase his prestige with clients."
But their existence can indirectly damage legitimate and academically worthy universities which, by choice, remain outside the system. "There are universities in Italy which are the genuine foreign branches of bona fide universities," said Ms Capucci. "There is the John Cabot University, for instance, the American University in Rome, the Johns Hopkins University in Bologna. All these are highly respectable institutions."