The international reputation of UK universities is being put at risk by the increasing number of diploma mills that use UK addresses to sell fake degrees, quality watchdogs have warned.
Academic inspectors across the world have raised concerns that the UK has become a haven for foreign companies posing as universities and selling degrees and doctorates online. Overseas operations can exploit a legal loophole in the UK that allows them to register in the country as a university as long as they are not offering UK degrees. The companies, which use authoritative sounding British titles, mention only in small print on their websites that their degrees are not validated by a UK academic institution.
Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, said: "At present there is no regulation of foreign higher education providers in the UK so long as they don't pretend to award UK degrees. A large number of these providers seem to be operating on the margins of legality, with dangerous consequences for the reputation of UK higher education internationally and for the legitimate foreign providers. This isn't just a matter of 'let the buyer beware': foreign governments are beginning to wonder about all our institutions."
Alan Contreras, of the Office of Degree Authorization in the US, said:
"These problems come from the stellar reputation of British higher education worldwide. That means that degree-mill operators like to be able to claim to operate in the UK. The main issue is that the UK allows entities to call themselves universities and issue degrees from British addresses based on spurious or doubtful approvals in other countries. The convenient fiction is that it's not the UK's problem. But it is, because the rest of the world thinks they are UK degrees."
George Brown, of the Australian Higher Education Consulting Group, said that it discovers UK-based degree mills on a weekly basis. He said: "The UK is becoming a haven for bogus universities. They feign legitimacy, and the UK is being preyed upon because of weak legislative practice."
Erik Johannsson, from the Swedish Agency for Higher Education, said: "We have dealt with 14 cases from the UK since 1998, and each year we see more."
While it is not known how many diploma mills use UK addresses, a Swedish study concluded recently that the number of fake universities worldwide had risen from about 200 in 2000 to more than 800 last year.
The General Medical Council, meanwhile, is investigating several foreign medical schools operating in the UK.
One example known to inspectors is Earlscroft University, which charges $150 (£85) for a bachelors degree. It says academic credits are awarded for "life experience" and promises to deliver diplomas within 21 days.
It is an offence, under sections 214-216 of the Education Reform Act, to award a degree from a body not recognised by the Department for Education and Skills.
Mr Williams said that it was time for a comprehensive review of the problem.
Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, said: "We recognise the problem of degree mills operating in the UK, but this is a global problem.
We are working with various government departments and individuals across the world to establish what can be done to stamp out degree mills and bogus providers."