Degrees of deception

A legal loophole ensures that as long as someone doesn't falsely claim to offer a UK-recognised qual

"The reputation of British higher education is suffering," says Professor Geoffrey Alderman. As a long-time adviser for universities and colleges, he has been pressing the government to clamp down on dodgy higher education providers in the UK, many of whom make millions by selling worthless degrees to innocent students.

Thousands of miles away in Kolkata, one such student, Sounak Halder, is struggling to repay a £5,000 debt. In 2006, he borrowed money to fund a Masters from a private college in London, supposedly awarded by the Irish International University. Only when he arrived at a grotty office in Shadwell, east London, did he realise his mistake. "I found the university had changed its website three times in three months," he says. Later he found no such university existed.

"Students from the developing world go back to their countries of origin and find they might as well paper their walls with the qualifications," says Alderman.

A legal loophole ensures that as long as someone doesn't falsely claim to offer a UK-recognised qualification, he or she is relatively free to sell degrees. Today's fake universities need little more than a glossy website. With fine words and affiliations to imaginary academic bodies, students may never realise their qualifications are not bona fide.

The IIU relies on backstreet colleges in London to provide the scant tuition needed to earn its qualifications. A one-year course at a British university can cost an overseas student around £10,000; the IIU charges £4,500. Unsurprisingly, thousands of students in the developing world leap at the chance to enrol for these cut-price degrees.

With few overheads, there is big money to be made. Preston University, Barbican University and the University of New Castle have all sprung up in the past decade, aided by the UK's lack of regulation. Local trading standards offices have been left to deal with the bogus colleges, even though the problem can be overwhelming in certain areas. Trading standards officers in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets have identified at least 40 problem colleges, with new ones opening all the time.

The government's answer to calls for regulation was a register of higher education providers, managed by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. This lists thousands of providers but by its own admission is no guarantor of quality. Sounak's college, for example, is on the register.

Bill Rammell, minister for higher education, claims that the register has since been cleaned up. "Since 1 January 2005, 256 colleges on the DIUS Register of Education and Training Providers have been investigated by the Borders and Immigration Agency. Of these, 124 have been found to be in breach of the immigration rules, and therefore removed from the register," he says.

"We are working very hard to ensure that all private institutions meet strict quality standards. Where we are not satisfied with a particular college, we will not hesitate to investigate and if necessary, close it down."

However, the DIUS keeps a secret list of bogus institutions. A leaked copy reveals that the IIU was identified as bogus as early as 2005. Yet Sounak was able to get a visa to study on its course in London in 2006.

"Why is the private list private?" asks Alderman.

The Home Office promises to shake up the system in 2009. Students will be granted visas only to accredited colleges. But there are ways round this. The IIU has started to offer directly taught courses at up to £9,000 a pop, designed for mature students, without the need for colleges. While there is money to be made, education cowboys will find a way to exploit students.

Angela Saini is a reporter for BBC London News

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God