When will UK act to grind down the degree mills?

February 16, 2007

Fake institutions in the US will soon face criminal charges, but Britain has yet to take the issue seriously, says Geoffrey Alderman.

Within a few days of taking control of the US Congress, the Democrats resurrected a piece of draft legislation that, if enacted, is likely to increase the power of the federal Government over higher education in a dramatic way. The Bill represents the first serious attempt to address the curse of "degree mills". Its repercussions will be felt worldwide.

Degree mills are institutions that fraudulently represent themselves as genuine academies of higher education, legitimately able to grant degrees and other qualifications (such as medical-practitioner licences) by virtue of having the appropriate authorisations. In the US, individual states confer degree-awarding licences. These powers are separate;y quality assured by accrediting commissions, in part to enable higher education institutions and students to draw down federal financial aid, as there is little direct supervision of higher education institutions at federal level.

This split in responsibility has permitted degree mills to operate in the US on a vast scale and to export their wares worldwide. In the view of the Washington-based Council on Higher Education Accreditation, the US is "a major source" of the export of fraudulent credentials. Less than a third of states have bothered to enact meaningful legislation aimed specifically at degree mills, so shady operators have been able to acquire legitimate licences that allow them to confer worthless degrees. Because they cannot subsequently obtain official accreditation, they have often established their own bogus accrediting commissions to certify their operations.

Occasionally, through complex sub-franchising deals, they have even been able to access federal money - sometimes they use their easily obtained licences to obtain accreditation off-shore.

One conservative estimate puts the annual turnover of US degree mills at about $500 million (£254 million). The truth is that no one knows how much money is made in this way.

Addressing the Council on Higher Education Accreditation's annual conference last month, Democratic Congresswoman Betty McCollum announced that she was reintroducing a radical measure first tabled in 2006. Degree mills exist in part because of the desire to obtain qualifications without working for them. Magazines and US radio and TV stations make money by putting their advertising services at the disposal of their operators. So the proposed legislation will not only enable criminal legal action to be taken at federal level against degree mills, but it will also seek to address the issue of media involvement in facilitating their operation and in disseminating knowledge of the services they offer. Knowingly obtaining and making use of fraudulent academic or professional credentials will become a criminal offence.

The Democrats are perceived as being more sympathetically disposed towards the publicly funded higher education sector and more willing than the Republicans to allow the sector to regulate itself. So some of the more brutally intrusive policies floated by the Bush Administration - for instance, the replacement of the regional self-governing university accrediting commissions by a unitary federal model - have been abandoned.

But the action against degree mills will prove significant.

The federal arm will reach well beyond US shores. British newspapers that advertise bogus universities could find themselves arraigned before a US court. Transatlantic airlines whose glossy magazines promote "executive"

MBAs that are "fully accredited" by non-existent accreditation agencies may also face criminal charges.

There is no reason why UK legislators should not follow this lead. At the moment, action against degree mills operating in the UK relies on the Trade Descriptions Act of 1968 and the Business Names Act of 1985, which made it illegal for a UK-registered company to use the words "university" or "polytechnic" in its title without government approval. There have been some successful prosecutions under these laws. But such pieces of legislation rely primarily on local trading standards officers. It is unfair to expect such officials to deploy a comprehensive knowledge of higher education accreditation in all its forms. The legislation is inadequate to deal with a growing problem made yet more acute by the lack of resources devoted to its eradication.

Congresswoman McCollum's Diploma Integrity Bill envisages the establishment of a degree mill task force to co-ordinate the attack on the sale and use of fraudulent degrees. Are we in the UK going to take the problem equally seriously? Or are we going to rely on US law-enforcement agencies to deal with the problem on our behalf?

Geoffrey Alderman is emeritus professor at Touro College, New York, in the US.

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