The British Council has stepped into an escalating dispute in Israel over "British degrees for sale". A senior British Council official in Tel Aviv warned this week that some British universities are "ruining the reputation of British higher education" with badly controlled franchises.
His comments came as the Israeli parliament's education committee met for a "special session" to debate the impact of new higher education licence regulations.
Jack Schuldenfrei, deputy director of the British Council's Israeli office, said he would be "very happy" to see one or two franchising licences refused among the 18 British universities that have applied, to safeguard the reputation of the rest.
Mr Schuldenfrei was responding to a crisis over British universities' operations in Israel, following revelations in The THES that Derby University has been put on probation by the Israeli regulating authority, the Higher Education Council. It is allowed to recruit for just one semester in six locations. But Derby has withdrawn applications for six other sites.
The licensing issue has since become subject to a national debate in the Israeli media. Mr Schuldenfrei said that Britain has been subject to high-profile claims that its universities offer third-rate degrees and degrees for sale. "It is not helping British higher education,"he said.
The franchising row was due to top the agenda of the education committee as The THESwent to press.
Eighteen British higher education providers are scheduled to have licence applications considered by the Israeli HEC. Two English institutions, including the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside and an unnamed university, have already withdrawn applications for licences. The University of East London has been told not to register any new students until the HEC has given further consideration to its delayed application. Mr Schuldenfrei predicts that some British universities' applications may not survive the process.
He said: "The situation in Israel has been unregulated and some universities - and I am being very generous - were naive in their relationships with their local partners. They did not implement the procedures that a higher education institution needs to put in place before it enters a market like this."
The licensing laws demand exact parity between provision in the Israeli extension and the parent institution. They dictate staffing levels and minimum teaching hours and are designed to clamp down on "cowboy" operations that have cashed in on an untapped market for lifelong learning in Israel. The British Council estimates that about 12,000 Israelis are studying for British degrees.
Mr Schuldenfrei said: "Lifelong learning has not really gained a foothold here. The result is that Britain, which is more advanced down the road of lifelong learning, would like to export its expertise overseas. It is a very fruitful market here."
In total, 48 international institutions are in the process of applying for licences to operate in Israel. So far just two universities, Swinburne University in Australia and Baltimore Hebrew University in the US, have been granted a licence while five non-British institutions have been denied. But Britain, by far the biggest provider, has been subject to the most vociferous criticisms, as the row over Derby University has escalated.
While Derby University, which originally disputed the HEC's findings that it did not meet legal requirements, has now accepted the HEC's interpretation and application of the new laws, there is growing protest against the HEC's actions among Israel's private colleges, concerned about their lucrative partnerships with the overseas providers.
The British Council believes the new laws are "not objectionable" and the protests against them are counter-productive, prompting further damaging media comment.
Mr Schuldenfrei said: "Debates we might have in quiet corridors in Britain tend to be aired in the press here. The upshot is that we can expect lots more unseemly rows and more comments (in the media) that Britain is selling third-rate degrees."
But he added: "Those who start shouting about the supreme court and injunctions and all the other noises I have heard recently are making a big mistake. Whether we like it or not, the HEC is entitled to monitor foreign branches. I would be happy to see one or two universities refused licences. If they cannot meet the requirements, they should not be operating."
Letters, page 13