The questioning by police in Israel of a man said to be selling bogus degrees is a timely warning to institutions of the potential perils of chasing the booming student market abroad, writes Tony Tysome
UK institutions seeking to cash in on record growth in the overseas student market have been warned to check the credentials of foreign partners and agents.
The warning this week from British Council and Quality Assurance Agency officials follows the questioning in Israel of David Ben-Menachem, who is accused of selling bogus University of Lincolnshire and Humberside degrees.
The institution, now called Lincoln University, withdrew from running overseas franchises four years ago. This included severing its Israeli links amid Israeli authorities' concerns over the operation. Mr Ben-Menachem had been the university's representative in Israel with its Israeli franchise held by his company Academion. The Israeli authorities officially began an investigation into Mr Ben-Menachem in 2002.
An investigation by The THES has revealed that many institutions are still exposing themselves and their reputations to significant risk by not scrutinising overseas partners and agents and not examining the running of their courses delivered offshore.
A recent British Council assessment of the overseas market forecasts an explosion in the number of students seeking places on courses run by institutions from the UK and its competitor countries. It predicts that by 2015 UK institutions could be delivering courses overseas to 1.4 million more students than the current total of about 200,000.
But institutions hoping to profit from this growth faced a huge hurdle, said Nicola Channon, the QAA's head of operations for institutional review.
Courses delivered abroad and validated by UK universities almost always involved third parties, which must be vetted before they could be trusted.
But things could still go wrong after the vetting, Ms Channon said. "It can be like the Lone Ranger and Tonto. The Lone Ranger rides in and sets up the partnerships, and perhaps runs it well. But then he goes and leaves it to Tonto, who really doesn't have a clue. The partnership has been left to run without the proper checks and balances in place."
Done on a handshake
Some overseas partnerships are struck on the basis of an informal meeting or word-of-mouth recommendation that is not backed up with independent checks.
Ms Channon said: "The vice-chancellor might meet someone by the pool on his Easter vacation abroad and really get on with them. Perhaps they are from a reputable institution, and a partnership is set up on the basis of that.
Which international committee is going to tell the vice-chancellor that this will not work?"
The University of Kent has ties with Academion. Pamela Cross, Kent's international office director, admitted that her institution's links with Academion were set up by a member of staff who had dealt with the company while working for a different employer. No one at Kent conducted any further checks on Academion's credentials, she said.
"We do talk to other institutions that have been dealing with an agent to see if they have had any problems," she said.
Kent plans to terminate its contract with Academion when it comes up for renewal in April.
A spokeswoman for the University of Hertfordshire, which also works with Academion, said links with the company developed via a "relationship" with Mr Ben-Menachem's wife, who had been an agent for the university "for a number of years".
The spokeswoman said: "We have been satisfied with the relationship we have, although we may now review the situation."
David Chiddick, vice-chancellor of Lincoln, said he believed institutions such as his simply lacked the resources to maintain the quality checks needed for offshore operations.
He said: "We have called a moratorium on overseas franchises for the foreseeable future because it is a cost opportunity we simply cannot afford. I would say that for those institutions like ours that do not have the infrastructure or resources to support it, overseas franchising is not for them."
Rough and risky recruiting
Pakistan is a prime example of a growing market in which institutions lacking strong quality controls are at risk.
A Pakistani student, who did not wish to be identified for fear of reprisals, told The THES that an agent operating in Lahore was offering prospective students guaranteed places on UK courses without going through the admissions procedures.
This behaviour is not uncommon, according to another agent in Lahore. Adeem Muhammad, business relations executive for Future Concerns Associates Ltd, said that some of the city's 50 agencies - most of which work with UK institutions -did not follow proper procedures.
He said: "A lot of agents claim that they have 100 per cent success in getting students a place and a visa just so they can get the business.
(After that) they try to get the students in by hook or by crook."
Iftikhar Elahi, director for the British Council in Lahore, said the British Council maintained a list of approved agents. It was, however, often bypassed by institutions that had formed "clubs" to target certain markets, he said.
"Universities are forming consortia and developing a group of agents they work with, and in effect carving the British Council out of the loop," he said.
This could prove risky if the criteria for signing up agents to recruit students was not properly defined, he warned. "We hear bad rumours about most of the agents, especially those who combine immigration with education services," he added.
Questions of quality
A study by the Observatory on Borderless Education of higher education in China, the world's fastest expanding higher education market, found that many Chinese institutions and agencies flouted quality assurance regulations despite the recent introduction of legislation that threatened to shut those that did not comply.
Richard Garrett, the observatory's deputy director, said: "Expansion has been so rapid that it is difficult for home institutions to keep track of everything -so from that point of view the system is open to abuse."
Most countries that have had problems were working to bolster quality assurance systems, he said, but more problems were bound to be encountered as the global market took off.
"More and more countries are becoming involved in hosting offshore provision, which means there are more and more places where experience is minimal. It is often in those areas where the problems emerge," he said.
The QAA said that institutions that set up overseas operations should adhere to its code of practice on collaborative provision, which has just been reviewed. The code states that institutions must take full responsibility for ensuring the quality of offshore courses and must check that there are no conflicts of interest with agents.
Geoffrey Alderman is academic dean at the American Intercontinental University and a former QAA inspector who led a pilot audit of UK courses delivered in Hong Kong and Singapore. He believes that the QAA should beef up its overseas audit programme and begin unannounced visits.
He said: "I did not believe all the stories I had heard before I left for Hong Kong and Singapore, but I was really depressed by what I found. Only one out of five operations we looked at was robust. When you look at more recent audits, you find that there has been some improvement - but not enough."
The importance of control
Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute and former chief executive of the QAA's precursor, the Higher Education Quality Council, said that with the code of practice - originally devised by the HEQC - in place, there was "no excuse" for institutions that got into trouble overseas.
He said: "All the things that have been happening are disappointing given that we quite clearly stated the basic rules and rationale for setting up a partnership. The awarding institution should check out any prospective partner thoroughly.
"They should put in place the quality-assurance procedures, which means they probably have to have people out there. It's not enough to visit a couple of times a year. It's complicated because in many countries the culture is quite different and there may be resistance to the way we do things."
Dr Brown warned that no one should underestimate the pressure institutions were under to recruit more overseas students.
But he added: "It's self-defeating if you cut corners because word gets around that you are that kind of institution, and then you will find it hard to recruit."
Piera Gerrard, deputy director of Education UK Marketing Division, the education marketing arm of the British Council, said a scheme being piloted in seven countries was striving to make the agents who work with UK institutions more professional and to improve their knowledge of the UK higher education system.
"Quite often, institutions do not have someone posted in-country, so they have to find a partner, which is where things can potentially go wrong," she said.
According to Ms Channon, the Academion case indicates that although the burgeoning overseas market offers significant rewards, it is a potential minefield for institutions.
"It's an increasingly risky business offering UK higher education overseas.
Every time something like this happens, it is a reminder of that fact," she said.