It's up to us to keep the sharks out of our pool

October 12, 2007

Universities have to fight to eradicate the bogus colleges that harm the UK's reputation, says Gerald Vinten. Rather like in the movie Jaws , it seems that one never knows what is lurking in the water in higher education. So let me tell you. There is a multibillion-pound global fraudulent education industry out there. And we should be aware of that lurking menace, because it is coming our way.

We already know of student fraud and plagiarism, although it has taken a long time for the academic community to grasp the significance of the problem. But, while there is an admirable accredited private sector that applies high standards, one has to be ever-vigilant to keep fraudsters out of the industry. Across the globe there are "accreditation mills" and a large number of degree mills.

Both legitimate and bogus colleges may approach the university sector to seek permission to run its courses. The existence of sub-standard colleges has caused problems for the many legitimate colleges in the private sector. Some universities and professional bodies have delisted institutions that have registered no students since validation. This led the Home Office, in April this year, to announce in haste that it would require university registration documents for students studying under franchise agreements. That took accredited colleges by surprise. Few had time to adjust to the need to persuade their partner universities to quickly provide this information, and as a result their bank balances have suffered as honest would-be students have been refused visas.

The University of London has found that many students falsely claim to be studying for the university's external examinations. One study has estimated that half the 43,000 doctorates granted each year in the US are bogus - you may well take on board postdocs only to find that they know less than you might expect.

There are some hopeful signs. A parliamentary statement of July announced three approved accreditation bodies for private colleges in the UK, all to be inspected by the Office for Standards in Education. By 2009 no visas will be offered to students of unaccredited private colleges.

But the full effect of the changes is still two years away, and the current controls function imperfectly or not at all. For example, Companies House does not adequately police company names, and so the unscrupulous make use of titles such as "institute" to suggest a degree of pre-eminence that is undeserved. The police seem unconcerned, and while trading standards officials are beginning to work together across London, all a bogus college needs to do to frustrate an investigation is move to a different jurisdiction. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills' Register of Education and Training Providers lists several bogus institutions, including at least one called "... University", that visa officers may accept in good faith.

There are many reasons why it makes sense to support legitimate private colleges. Ambitious government targets have been set for student numbers, and private colleges bring in many students. Such colleges are a significant source of income for the economy. But a bad experience in private education will ruin the otherwise favourable reputation of British education, and that affects us all. Finally, universities could suffer bad debts from dealings with less reputable operators.

I cannot understand why higher education institutions are not lobbying in support of the legitimate private colleges by campaigning against fraud. Universities UK should press Government into action because we still have almost two years under this current regulatory regime. That means two years of legitimate colleges suffering while the illegitimate succeed. One owner of a bogus institution has been quoted as asking why he should supply a genuine education when it is cheaper to print pieces of paper with false qualifications and attendance records.

In the meantime, we have to rely on organisations and statutes that have nothing to do with education to spot the fraudsters. For example, Transport for London inspectors following up cases of fraudulent student travelcards found one college campus that turned out to be a toilet, another that was a room above a fish and chip shop.

Surely it would be better to approach the problem from a primarily educational perspective? Recent US experience suggests that only a united front will galvanise governments to help us do this. The British Accreditation Council looks forward to working more closely with universities to strengthen the valuable links between the public and private sectors to the benefit of British education as a whole.

- Gerald Vinten is a professor emeritus of management and also chief inspector of the British Accreditation Council for Independent Further and Higher Education.

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