Bogus UK university bust sparks call to act

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 January, 2008, 12:00am

Britain's higher education watchdog has called for urgent action to root out unaccredited education providers following an investigation that revealed Irish International University (IIU) to be bogus.

Universities UK, which represents Britain's universities and some higher education colleges, said fake providers threatened the country's academic reputation.

The organisation, which has 132 members, said: 'The current unregulated position allows bogus providers to trade on the good reputation of our universities.'

Rick Trainor, Universities UK president, said: 'It is vital we ensure that bogus education providers are not allowed to operate unchecked in the UK. The negative publicity surrounding such cases [as IIU] could do real harm to the international reputation of UK education.

'We must provide reassurance for international students looking to study in the UK that action is being taken.'

Professor Trainor's comments followed a BBC investigation that exposed IIU as bogus and an article on Times Online this week that revealed a leading businesswoman had been embarrassed into handing back an honorary doctorate it awarded her.

Mary Chapman, who has been chief executive of the 73,000-strong Chartered Management Institute since 1998, was hoodwinked into presenting certificates at last year's 'degree ceremony'.

A BBC investigation revealed the decade-old IIU, 'with a staff list stretching from Kuala Lumpur to Monaco', to have awarded unaccredited degrees to thousands of students - many in Asia. The inquiry showed it operated from an Irish post office box address and hired accommodation from Oxford University for presentations.

The BBC tracked the IIU's honorary chancellor and council head, known as 'His Excellency Baron Knowth', to Monte Carlo where he is a tax exile.

'Baron Knowth', in reality chartered accountant Jeffrey Wooller, admitted to an undercover reporter: 'Of course it's dodgy. So long as they're happy what difference does it make? It's not accredited so it's not recognised anywhere.'

The British government is hoping to make life more difficult for fraudulent operators by bringing in a new points-based immigration system by next year.

In future any college recruiting students from abroad will need to be registered on a new Home Office Sponsors' Register and be subject to external accreditation.

Professor Trainor said Universities UK welcomed the initiative. 'This move is long overdue and will help ensure that international students are not duped by bogus colleges.

'Such a register should assist with the eradication of unaccredited education providers and limit fraudulent student visa applications, while ensuring genuine applications are handled efficiently,' he said.

'Importantly, the new system will involve institution-specific visas and will offer a more reliable way of monitoring enrolments and attendance. Higher education is not a high-risk area. These proposals confirm this and should ensure that higher education is not associated with less reputable education providers.'

Universities UK has voiced concerns, however, about other aspects of the proposals, including 'significant new costs and administrative burdens on universities'.

Professor Trainor said: 'The Home Office must recognise that universities are subject to quality assurance mechanisms and already supply data on their students and staff to government.

'Creating new and burdensome processes risks harming our international competitiveness. It is in our interest to get this system right as international students constitute the largest user-group of our managed migration system.'

Worthless paper

The bogus IIU awarded unaccredited degrees to thousands of students

The number universities and higher education colleges that are members of Universities UK is:132