Sleaze by degrees

Lenient marking, local teachers setting exams - British courses abroad have come under fire.
Click to follow
Sleaze is not a word one normally associates with universities. But it is being used increasingly to describe the overseas activities of some institutions rushing to cash in on the multi-million-pound global degree industry. Southampton Institute of Higher Education has admitted to receiving large sums of money in envelopes as a result of a partnership it had in Athens with a private Greek college (now terminated). At the same time the Higher Education Quality Council found weaknesses in quality controls of Southampton Institute's foreign programmes. Another college, Swansea Institute, was the subject of a highly critical report from the National Audit Office earlier this year for mismanaging degree courses it offered in Malaysia. Again the HEQC raised questions about quality control. The issue is being taken seriously because it threatens to tarnish the reputation of British higher education abroad.

"Sleaze is an inevitable by-product of the present franchising system," says Colwyn Williamson, of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards and a lecturer at Swansea University. "Universities seek these arrangements because of the financial crises created by underfunding. The aim is to make money, and appropriate quality controls would defeat the purpose of the exercise. Some of the franchising institutions are sweatshops in which no one has heard of academic freedom and the students are awarded British degrees in name only."

Franchising is an American concept, used for selling socks or fast food, and its use in education is relatively new. A well structured and managed global franchising arrangement can boost a university's income by as much as pounds 1m to pounds 10m a year, according to Alastair Somerville Ford, chief executive of the Institute of Commercial Management, which serves as an exam board for vocational programmes.

But the real problem with franchising is standards - so much so that Sir Ron Dearing is expected to address it in his report on higher education to be published this year.

"Many of the hundreds of thousands of students throughout the world who undertake franchised degrees in their own countries are studying at local institutions which are not and would not be granted degree-awarding powers by their own ministries of education," says Mr Somerville Ford.

"They are taught by local lecturers, many of whom work part-time, and it is not unusual to find that the students are examined by their own teaching staff. Can and do these students genuinely reach the same level of knowledge and ability as those students on the same courses but studying in the UK? I think not."

Such is the concern that the Higher Education Quality Council sent its auditors abroad last year to check up on the overseas partners of 15 UK institutions. At the same time it revised its code of practice on overseas collaborations. The auditors visited five countries: Greece, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Spain. Although they concluded that overseas students were getting a fair deal, they also found there was little room for complacency on the part of individual institutions. More visits are in the pipeline this year - to Europe, the Middle East and India.

In their report on Strathclyde University's partnership with the Person Centred Approach (sic) Institute in Greece, the auditors found a problem which cropped up elsewhere. The external examiner sent out to check on the postgraduate diploma in counselling, which Strathclyde validates, could not speak the language, in this case Greek. She was having to rely on translations of student assignments. What was unusual was that the translations were provided by a student who - for part of the time - had been on the course. The university might like to reflect on this, the auditors' report said.

Another problem was the promotional material put out by the Person Centred Approach Institute. According to the auditors, Strathclyde saw no need to scrutinise this. But the HEQC's code of practice states: "UK partners should retain effective control over all information, publicity and promotional activity relating to programmes and awards for which they have responsibility".

Southampton Institute knows all about the hazards of not checking the claims of partner institutions abroad. Its marketing people in Athens were claiming that the degrees - in maritime studies and business administration - were awarded by Southampton Institute itself. This was not the case. Southampton Institute is not a fully-fledged university - though it would like to be. Its degrees are validated by Nottingham Trent University. The sales material was amended after criticism, a spokesman said. In addition, the Southampton Solent Campus title (which the institute used in Athens) was translated wrongly into Greek as "Southampton Solent University".

But the most serious issue, according to some, is that universities are not being sufficiently careful about how they exercise the great powers they have as examining bodies. Professor Alan Smithers of Brunel University believes that universities such as Bradford, which is franchising a BSc in business and management studies to the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS), are treading on thin ice. Students graduate from MDIS with a Bradford degree but without setting foot in the United Kingdom. It would be preferable, according to Smithers, if such degrees were called "external" degrees in the same way as the old University of London external degree was.

Not everyone agrees. Geoffrey Alderman, head of the academic development and quality assurance unit at Middlesex University, points out that many franchising arrangements in Britain work well. But the degrees have to be run in exactly the same way as the degrees in the franchising university. Britain has a quality-assurance system in the shape of the HEQC which is unparalleled in the world, he says. "If countries like Australia and the USA were to have something like the HEQC they would also find a lot of worms wriggling under the stones."

David Elliott, director of higher education at the British Council, endorses the view that the British are ahead of the game in international quality assurance. He says: "The whole business of taking foreign courses in situ by distance learning or by other collaborative arrangements is a growing area of international education so it's essential we get it right if we're to be leaders"n

'Students lacked English and research skills'

Last year a part-time lecturer at the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS) wrote to the Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, and education bodies in the UK about the standard of the BSc degree franchised by Bradford University. Gul Chotrani stated that most students could not discuss elementary issues in business or current affairs and lacked English and research skills, and that he had been trying to air the problems for two years. The Higher Education Quality Council asked Bradford to respond, and was satisfied with its reply. But Mr Chotrani was dismissed by MDIS, and now faces legal action in Singapore.

Colwyn Williamson of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards has written to Professor David Johns, Bradford's vice-chancellor, to support Mr Chotrani. He stated: "It is transparently obvious that the University of Bradford can monitor academic standards at MDIS properly only if members of staff there can bring their concerns to you without fear of victimisation."

A spokeswoman for Bradford said that the university controlled the quality of student intake at MDIS as well as the curriculum and the assessment process, approved the appointment of staff and monitored their performance. "We are satisfied the degree is of equivalent quality with the degree in Bradford, and we think very highly of our Singapore students."

Mr Chotrani has found that that the proportion of first-class degrees awarded by MDIS is unusually high. Constance Chew, public relations manager for the institute, said this was because so many of the students achieving Firsts had work experience. "All students have to meet the minimum of a pass in English at O-level"n

'One college was paid with cash in envelopes'

Britain's biggest higher education college, Southampton Institute, was criticised last year by the Higher Education Quality Council for the way it was managing its links with overseas colleges. The institute had extensive partnerships abroad - in Ireland, Spain, India and Greece - though its operations in the latter two countries have ceased. Its activities in Athens ended following concern about misleading advertising and unusual funding arrangements.

At first the institute was franchising courses via a private Greek college and was paid in cash stuffed into envelopes and brought through customs. "We didn't want to bring money into this country in envelopes," said a spokesman. "We sought advice from banks and various bodies and they said this was an acceptable way of doing things. The person we were dealing with insisted on paying us that way."

When that relationship was terminated in 1995 the institute set up its own base in Athens. But that came under fire from the HEQC for the way it was being marketed. Advertisements for courses at the Athens campus were not seen by the head of marketing in England and eyebrows were raised about the use of the term "Southampton Solent Campus", given that Southampton is a higher education institute not a university. The HEQC concluded: "These approaches to the promotion of overseas provision are not consistent with generally accepted best practice." The institute is currently under investigation by the Higher Education Funding Counciln

'Diplomas were being printed locally'

Concern about the overseas activities of Swansea Institute for Higher Education began when external examiners reported that scripts for an MBA course taken by students in Malaysia were being marked more leniently than those written by students in Wales.

The Higher Education Quality Council looked into the matter and concluded: "The institute appears to have allowed its overseas collaborative provision to develop separately from the quality assurance procedures and practices obtaining in programmes delivered in the UK."

Lecturers passed a vote of no confidence in the institute's principal, Professor Gerald Stockdale. After pressure from the governors he resigned. There followed a report from the National Audit Office which queried the 33 foreign trips which the principal had taken in the space of four years at a cost of pounds 65,000. The auditors also identified problems with planning, student registration and financial controls. There was poor control over the distribution of examination certificates. In Malaysia, 500 certificates for the postgraduate diploma in business management were printed locally. This could have led to certificates being issued or sold locally without the institute's knowledge, said the NAO.

The institute fully accepted the report and agreed there had been insufficient control mechanisms. All weaknesses identified had been addressed, it said, and the institute had been reorganised. The institute is in the process of implementing the recommendations of the National Audit Office reportn