Fake courses and low standards proliferate as the market grows, says Rebecca Warden
Unesco researchers are warning of a growing tide of fraud and corruption in higher education.
One of the most common examples is institutional fraud, said Muriel Poisson, programme specialist, and Jacques Hallak, former director of Unesco's International Institute for Educational Planning, who were speaking at a recent international conference on accreditation in Barcelona.
Foreign students have become big business over the past 20 years. Higher education is Australia's second largest export while for the US it is its fifth largest service export.
While most operations are legitimate, the number of fake universities has shot up from about 200 worldwide in 2000 to more than 800 in 2005, according to Sweden's National Agency for Higher Education. There has also been a rise in the number of reputable universities offering substandard programmes abroad, usually in developing countries.
Placid Njoku, director of quality assurance at Nigeria's National Universities Commission, sees an invasion of foreign recruiting agencies every summer. "The curriculum they deliver is uncertified and often unstructured. Programmes that are supposed to take four years are given in less than a year," he said.
In Latin America, problems are caused by the uncontrolled growth of the private sector and the presence of foreign universities offering distance-learning courses.
In Argentina, the Instituto Hern n Darias's request to be officially licensed as a university was twice turned down, but it continued to advertise courses with degrees from reputable Spanish universities.
"Some institutions are offering distance-learning courses of very low quality," said Norberto Fernandez Lamarra, director of educational development at Tres de Febrero National University in Buenos Aires. "This may produce useful earnings for Spanish universities, but it isn't doing much to develop higher education in Latin America."
The Israeli Government gives its employees a 10-20 per cent bonus when they obtain an advanced degree. In 2001, several top Israeli officials, including a police chief and the head of the teachers' union, were found to have gained fake degrees from Latvia University in Riga.
In 2003, four administrators from the Israeli branch of the UK's Lincolnshire and Humberside University were arrested on suspicion of selling fake degrees.
In South Africa, it is estimated that in 2003 about 15 per cent of workers used bogus qualifications to get a job.
Dr Poisson and Dr Hallak said that overreliance on degrees as the sole unit of currency for getting jobs was making matters worse. "When you have no way of verifying whether a degree is genuine or not, the whole system of qualifications becomes questionable," Dr Poisson said.
The researchers said tighter regulation and more transparent criteria for quality assurance were needed, pointing to initiatives such as Unesco's quality assurance and recognition project.
There is also a need to provide students with as much information as possible to stop them falling prey to unscrupulous operators. The US state of Michigan lists unaccredited institutions, including the tellingly named College of Nonsense in Nebraska, and unauthorised accrediting bodies.