Rector in Imperial lather

February 25, 2000

"'I have been told by many staff that they want a first-class university even if it costs a lot of money. We cannot afford ... to build a Rolls-Royce from scratch." Dr Vip told the v-c to aim for a "Toyota"

university'

International academics have accused Imperial College, London, of "acquiescing" in the misuse of its name and reputation by a private Thai university with which it has financial and personal ties.

Rector of Imperial Lord Oxburgh said he was aware that the Asian University of Science and Technology may have been "over-egging" its relationship with Imperial, but prestigious universities "had to live with" such exaggerations in the overseas market.

The AUST has been claiming in promotional literature that its courses are "validated" by Imperial. The misleading claims have been criticised by several of the AUST's founders, including founding vice-chancellor Bill Carroll and several English directors.

Recent publicity material boasts: "Imperial College: core curriculum and degree validation". A leaflet claims that Imperial "validates the university's academic standards". Imperial has confirmed that it does not validate any of the AUST's courses.

The AUST's claims are based on a 1996 "service agreement". In return for Pounds 110,000 a year - and travel expenses for Imperial staff - Imperial agreed to "advise and assist" on curriculum and course development and on staff recruitment. Imperial also agreed to "review the academic courses with a view to confirming that the standards are equivalent to those of Imperial".

This deal would mean only that "one or more appropriate members of staff" at Imperial would confirm that standards at the AUST were broadly comparable to Imperial's. But while Imperial has taken money for consultancy services on course design and appointments, it has yet to provide any of these agreed checks, Lord Oxburgh said.

The AUST has claimed close links with Imperial since its conception in 1994, when a management company, Imperial Technology Management Services, was set up by Imperial alumnus Vip Roengpithya to take plans forward. Lord Oxburgh and former rector Lord Flowers gave vocal support to the project at its conception and joined the would-be university's council.

But internal documents reveal that aspirations to become "an internationally recognised university at the highest level of academic excellence", like Imperial, were doomed.

In a 1998 memo to the then vice-chancellor Bill Carroll, founder Dr Vip said:

"I have been told by many of your staff that they want a first-class university even if it costs a lot of money. We cannot afford ... to build a Rolls-Royce from scratch." He told the vice-chancellor to cut costs and aim for a "Toyota" university.

Minutes seen by The THES reveal that Professor Carroll complained in management meetings that he had no control over a regularly changing budget and that he had to spend 250,000 Baht (Pounds 4,000) of his own money in 1997 "to support staff who found themselves in difficulty". Other staff spent "large amounts of their personal monies to help run the university". Ex-pat staff were asked to accept salary reductions "or have (their) employment terminated".

Several founding academics, who have all left the AUST, have criticised the arrangement with Imperial. A statement to The THES, signed by eight former senior managers including Professor Carroll and director of development Pat Sparry, warned that quality has been compromised and contracts abused.

They said: "It is regrettable that Imperial is still a willing partner with the AUST and is acquiescing to the employment malpractices that are occurring."

Lord Oxburgh said: "We have no way of monitoring all the material that comes out of the AUST but everything we have seen has been acceptable, although some would say just this side of acceptable."

Lord Oxburgh said he was unaware that the AUST had been using the term validate. "We have made it clear we do not validate its degrees," he said. Want to blow the whistle? Contact Phil Baty on 020 7782 3298 or email

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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