The reputation of British higher education was under fire last night after the disclosure that the Secretary of State for Education has ordered an investigation into Derby University, which is alleged to have admitted more than 3,000 unqualified students to business courses it franchised in Israel.
The allegations could damage the Prime Minister's push to rebrand British higher education abroad. He wants an extra 75,000 students by 2005.
It is only the second time the Quality Assurance Agency, the higher education standards watchdog, has been called in to investigate degree standards at a university.
The clalims were made by the lecturers' union, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE). It says unqualified Israeli students were admitted to courses at Inter College in Israel to meet financial targets. Some were allegedly given BA honours degrees in less than 12 months and, in some cases, these students possessed no previous academic qualifications.
The vice-chancellor of Derby University, Roger Waterhouse, denied unqualified students were admitted to the business degree. All had prior qualifications although perhaps not the Bagrut, the Israeli equivalent of A-levels.
He said: "We have rigorous procedures for assessment of prior learning."
Mr Waterhouse said it waspossible students had graduated from the business degree in less than one year but he knew of no case where a student had graduated without suitable qualifications. He rejected a claim that exam scripts were not being moderated.
The head of the universities department of NATFHE, Tom Wilson, said: "Standards are crucial. Anything which undermines them does untold damage. The international reputation of the whole system is affected.
"Blair's targets for overseas expansion cannot be met if British higher education acquires a tarnished reputation abroad."
NATFHE has been in a long-running dispute with Derby University over underpayment of lecturers, which has led the union to call for an international boycott of the university.
Colwyn Williamson, of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards and a lecturer at Swansea University, said: "Sleaze is an inevitable product of the present franchising system. Universities seek these arrangements because of the financial crises created by underfunding.
"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."
There have been a number of incidents recently that haveraised questions about the quality of degrees abroad. Southampton Institute admittedreceiving large sums of cash in a former partnership with a college in Athens. Swansea Institute was criticised by the National Audit Office for mismanaging degree courses in Malaysia.