Fraud squads to root out phantom studies

Education/ funds swindle
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COLLEGES are to face scrutiny from a network of "fraud squads" to prevent them from claiming funds for non-existent training courses.

While officials say they do not believe the phantom practice is widespread, a series of well-publicised cases have revealed irregularities costing the taxpayer up to pounds 250,000.

Six regional "fraud" offices will open this month in Cardiff, Warrington, Leeds, Coventry, Bristol and St Albans, with a further one to follow in Northern Ireland. The three-year exercise, financed by the Department of Employment, will cost pounds 3m.

Investigators will make unannounced visits to colleges across the country, which can receive pounds 2,000 or more for every student they recruit. Concerns have also been raised about individuals personally benefiting from fraudulently raised funds.

National Vocational Qualifications, designed to reskill a workforce which is falling behind foreign competitors, are probably the biggest exercise ever attempted by the education system. So far, 750,000 people have gained certificates from more than 10,000 colleges, employers and training institutions. But the council which oversees the courses is determined to stamp out phantom courses which have cost the taxpayer so dear.

In June 1994, it was revealed that 42 children attending a college creche in Scarborough had been enrolled as full-time students, qualifying for up to pounds 100,000 in funding. Earlier this year, police investigated community groups who were paid pounds 140,000 by Bournville College in Birmingham to run courses which then failed to materialise.

A Cumbrian travel agent also said he was awarded a business administration certificate without even enrolling on a course.

The chief executive of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, John Hillier, said these were isolated incidents but the move was designed to ensure that colleges were operating to the highest standards.

"I don't believe there is widespread fraud, but I am concerned about the damage caused by allegations of fraud," he said.

Ngaio Crequer, spokeswoman for the Association for Colleges, said it was unclear whether the new network would be useful or just mean extra bureaucracy.

"We don't want just another lot of policemen looking into quality, but colleges are happy to see any development which would promote good courses for students," she said.