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May 25, 2010
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Bogus students facing global crackdown

The BBC recently reported how bogus students face a global crackdown. "Unscrupulous" recruitment agents who bring bogus overseas students into the UK are being targeted in an international initiative.  The British Council has for the first time brought together countries including the UK, the US and Australia to try to keep out such students.  The council says there are "widespread concerns" about dishonest agents.

Universities say the majority of agents are legitimate and are an important way of finding overseas students.  Rogue agents are accused of falsifying documents and helping people to get around the student visa system, the rules of which immigration authorities in the UK have tried to tighten.

Expanding business

It is a problem that raises concerns about illegal immigration and the possibility of people with terrorist intentions coming into the country, although in many cases it is the students themselves who are being duped.  A meeting of immigration and education authorities in London, the first of its kind, is intended to co-ordinate a multi-national response.  Higher education has become a globalised market and the British Council says there needs to be an international approach to tackling fraud.

In particular there are concerns about agents fraudulently sending students from Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan and parts of Africa.  

Legitimate agents recruit for a commission, which can be worth several thousands of pounds per student, bringing overseas students to universities, colleges and language schools.  Four out of five UK universities use agents, says the British Council, with "many thousands" of individual agents working in this expanding business.  The British Council says that some dishonest agents advertise courses as a route to migration and claim to "guarantee" success in admission tests.

Agents have also cheated honest applicants, who are misled into paying for courses at bogus colleges, which are nothing like the places that agents have described.  The British Council says agents have been caught passing off "two-room colleges as prestigious institutions".

And, in some cases, overseas students have arrived with no-one to meet them, and nowhere to stay when they discover the colleges do not exist.  There are also concerns about "multi-national businesses which open up money-making colleges and then close them down, leaving students stranded".

An inaugural meeting of English-speaking countries brought together representatives of the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the Irish Republic.  The UK Border Agency was among the representatives from the UK.  Pat Killingley, the British Council's director of higher education, said competitor countries need to work together.  "We have common interests - we've all built up reputations for quality in higher education that we want to protect," she said.  Universities and colleges could not operate without agents, she said, and their role was likely to increase.  As such, she said, it was vital that the small proportion of dishonest agents were stopped.  Countries will share information about dishonest agents and they will try to support legitimate agents, she said.  There could also be a code of behaviour for what remains a largely-unregulated market.

In the UK, overseas students are worth £5.3bn each year, according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.  In Australia, there had been a concerted drive to recruit more overseas students - but there has now been a shift to tighten entry rules.  In the United States, there have been ethical concerns about the use of agents.  Reports in the US have claimed that Chinese students have paid thousands of dollars each to agents to get a university place - with the university also paying a fee to the agents.  There are about 200,000 students from India and China alone in the United States - out of a total of about 670,000 overseas students.

Last year, the UK government began to introduce a tougher visa system for overseas students.  This included a more rigorously-vetted list of approved education providers, which aimed to prevent bogus colleges.  But instead of falling, the numbers of student visas issued in some countries rose sharply.  Between April and September 2009, 35,300 UK student visas were issued in India, compared with 20,294 in the same period the previous year.

Suspended

In response to this increase, earlier this year all applications for student visas for the UK from north India, Bangladesh and Nepal were temporarily suspended.  There were 351,000 applications for UK student visas in 2008-09 - with 236,000 visa being issued.  The number of overseas students in higher education in 2008-9 in the UK is 251,310. This represents an increase of almost 50,000 in four years.

But Universities UK emphasised the usefulness of well-run agents - and said "tighter rules should help ensure that genuine international students and UK institutions are not duped.  Universities are experienced in looking out for fraudulent activities and aim to have good channels of communication across the sector and with partners in the UK and overseas, to identify and tackle problems," said a spokesman.  "Sharing information is key to tackling fraud, and consideration is being given to further enhancing communications across the sector and with relevant partners."

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May 15, 2010
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Seychelles International Business Authority takes action against diploma mills

At the end of April the Seychelles Authorities struck off Canterbury University Limited, Earlscroft University Limited, University Consortium International Limited and Bridgewater University Limited, who were all registered as International Business Companies in the country. Their conduct of business affairs or other activities were found to be, or likely to be, contrary to Seychelles ' law.

The news was particularly welcomed by degree mill expert Dr. George Brown, who successfully defended legal action instigated against him by Earlscroft University. Dr. Brown publicly named Earlscroft University as a degree mill on his website in early in 2004. Earlscroft took umbrage to this, and commenced an array of spam attacks on his work and associates. They also created a range of fictitious online legal firms which threatened to sue him if he did not retract the statement. Dr. Brown ignored the threats. As a result Earlscroft engaged legal representation in the State of South Australia (where he resides) in a further attempt to scare him into retracting his claims.

During this time Earlscroft kept mail bombing his employer and put up a number of websites further attempting to defame and pressure Dr. Brown into retracting his claims. This activity intrigued him and further spurred him into pursuing the case. A visit to London to view the erm campus confirmed a range of suspicions, and verified that the actual operator lived in Portugal. Given Earlscroft had no assets in the State of South Australia for him to claim against if he won the case (which he did), Earlscroft was ordered to put up a significant amount of money in court. Interestingly they did, and it appeared that the case was going to proceed.

Unfortunately Earlscroft withdrew the claim just before discovery was to commence. The reasons for this are quite simple - during the discovery process Earlscroft would have been obliged to divulge the names and location of the Directors of the Company. Clearly if Earlscroft had done this the game would have been up, as the alleged links to Instantdegrees.com would have been confirmed. So, in the end Dr. Brown was awarded $4000 and the 'university ' disappeared into the ether, never to be heard of again. And the moral of the story? The truth will always prevail - never back down from shallow degree mill threats.

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May 13, 2010
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Fakes one to know one: the best degree money can buy

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Australians holding bogus degrees have worked for Boeing Australia, and, very worrying, practice as dentists, in medicine, engineering and law.  They include people with bogus degrees from the defunct Diploma mill Saint Regis which was operated by an American fraud ring until it was closed by the US government in 2005. Federal employees in the US, including White House staff, were reported to have held bogus Saint Regis degrees in 2006.

A spokeswoman for Boeing Australia confirmed that a man the Herald identified as having a qualification from Saint Regis was a former employee. ''For privacy reasons, however, Boeing does not disclose the circumstances around which employees leave the company,'' she said. A registered dentist now working in a practice on the outskirts of Brisbane is also listed as having a health science qualification from Saint Regis. The Herald contacted the dentist, but the calls were not returned.

A spokeswoman from the Dental Board of Queensland confirmed the man was registered as a dentist with a bachelor of dental science from the University of Queensland and qualifications in oral surgery from the University of London. She said he had not registered a PhD in science from Saint Regis with the board.

Among about 50 Australians linked to Saint Regis, with qualifications including degrees in electrical and mechanical engineering, law, IT, marketing, business management and theology, is a Melbourne man who obtained a bogus chemistry degree. 

When contacted by the Herald, he said he was shocked to discover last year that Saint Regis operators had been jailed for fraud. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said he had obtained a degree in recognition of his work experience and partial completion of a science degree.  He had paid Saint Regis $600 for a chemistry degree, four years ago.  When asked if it helped him obtain his current job, he said: ''I don't know. I obviously chose the wrong place. I thought I was getting a genuine experiential degree. I was only interested in a degree, but they said I could qualify for a masters.''

Other so-called universities that have no campuses, existing only by name in cyberspace, are continuing to offer Australians diplomas and degrees including PhDs, in recognition of no more than ''life experience''.  The Camden University website says the university ''does not boast of a campus'' and is structured ''along modern lines''.  ''Camden is for the working men and women who for various reasons have missed out in the rat race for college or tertiary education,'' it says.  When the Herald spoke to the operator of the US-based online Camden University, a man who identified himself as Dr Al Harris, from Camden University in Delaware, offered a masters or PhD degree in English literature for $US2000 ($2250) in recognition of the completion of an arts degree.

Dr George Brown, academic director of the Think: Education Group, who helped draft a UNESCO statement discouraging university degree mills, said the Saint Regis qualifications had appeared credible.  ''It is a global problem. But there has been no consolidated central approach to this problem of degree mills,'' he said.  ''It is a matter of recruiters and employers being vigilant. My research found worldwide, close to 30 per cent of senior executives have presented qualifications they didn't hold.''

Brown knew of an Australian being sued by an employer in Japan for holding a bogus Canterbury University degree. The Australian claimed to have been duped.  Mary Hicks, director of employment education and training for the Australian Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber had received reports of employees presenting bogus university qualifications and fabricated work histories, a practice which had been made easier by the internet.

 

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