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How to avoid fraudulent university courses as an international student

For international students, it’s really important to verify that the university or course you are applying to is legitimate. These tips should help you distinguish a real university from a fake one

    Adam Crosbie's avatar

    Adam Crosbie

    Qualification fraud policy officer at Jisc
    July 5 2021
    A fraud alert sign


    Fees, visas, accommodation, qualification equivalencies, travel – about as much work can go into planning international study as it can to the course itself.

    Among many factors, students want to be reassured that the college or university is of a high standard and that their new qualification will be valuable enough to find a job that justifies the investment.

    However, sometimes students can forget to check whether the institution really does have the power to award them their degree in the first place.

    While studying internationally can be a great investment, it also attracts scammers, and degree fraud is a booming multimillion-pound industry. Every year, thousands of students unknowingly sign up to courses and pay fees to fake universities and colleges offering fake qualifications. International students, who might not be familiar with the university system of their chosen country, are prime targets for bogus universities.

    Among those attempting to imitate genuine institutions, there are others creating entirely new institutions. One scammer network in Manchester bought up failing colleges and rebranded them. As part of the “visas for cash” scam, students who wanted to genuinely study were exploited and taken in alongside those who simply wanted to cheat their way into the UK immigration system.

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    Before even beginning to look at courses to study abroad, there are a few things students can do to protect their time and money.

    Verify that the university or college is genuine

    Check that the university or college has recognised degree-awarding powers – this could be the difference between applying for the Manchester University (fake).

    Jisc’s Prospects Hedd degree verification service holds details of the more than 400 recognised UK institutions as well as 243 fake providers. You can type the name of a university or college into the search facility to find out if it is legitimate or not. If it is not listed, it is most likely fake, and you can report this through Prospects Hedd. This search service is free and doesn’t require an account to use. You can never be too careful, so it always pays to do a quick check.

    There will be similar ways to check whether a university is genuine in other countries such as the US, Canada and Australia by checking the Department of Education websites.

    If you’re working with an agent, contact the educator directly

    Always make sure that the contact details are correct for any university you are planning to apply to.

    Don’t rely on a third-party agent; contact the college or university directly. Once you have verified the provider of your qualification, it should be straightforward to get the correct contact details. Send an email to confirm your course details and ask whether the agent you are working with is a trusted partner of the institution.

    Is it too good to be true?

    If an offering seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Visas in exchange for enrolling on a course where students don’t have to speak English will be fake. For most students wanting to study in an anglophone country, you will need to prove either a pre-existing level of proficiency in English or enrol on an ESL course in order to learn English.

    Do your homework

    Governmental rules and regulations are in place to protect students for a reason, so it’s important to do some basic research and follow the guidelines. They will help to make sure that visas and qualifications are gained through official channels and are, therefore, legitimate.

    Government websites have a register of visa application centres in different countries. If in doubt, students can contact the relevant department in their own country to gather more information.

    Don’t be afraid to ask questions

    When it comes to finding a good institution to study at, you can never ask too many questions. Any legitimate institution will happily answer any questions a prospective student may have, whereas fraudulent institutions often try to avoid giving answers.

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