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October 20 2010

The Netherlands re-examines higher education laws

Many European countries, such as the UK, Austria and Germany, have laws in place which protect the designation of the term 'University '. However, the Netherlands is one of the few countries who do not currently regulate use of the term. Professor Paul Zoontjens explains, ""Until now, the Netherlands does not know a prohibition of the unlawful granting of academic degrees or titles. Furthermore, there is no legal rule that can prevent organisations calling themselves a university and acting as such."" The rising emergence of private higher education institutions, and the threat of diploma mills means there is an increasing need to legally protect the title 'university ' and Paul admits, ""Our legislation is not up to the level of that
of a lot of other European countries, like Germany or the UK, while the problems with (pretend) HE-institutions in the Netherlands are at least the like
.""

According to current statistics from Verifile's Accredibase the Netherlands is the third most popular destination in Europe for rogue degree providers, with 33 unrecognised institutions and accrediting agencies claiming to be based there. Italy is just ahead with 40 entries, whilst the UK is by far the most popular destination, with 332.
Paul 's report comes as a result of a resolution by the Dutch Parliament in June of last year, which stated that institutions bearing designations such as 'university ', but who were not at liberty to grant legally recognised degrees, were misleading and confusing. In response to this resolution, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science commissioned Zoontjens to investigate the legal possibilities of protecting the designation ""university"" and to examine how this is done in other nations with comparable higher education systems..

The report identifies a striking inconsistency in the severity of the punishment for breaching higher education law across the countries reviewed. Surprisingly, the maximum fine in the UK is only £5000 in comparison to the 100000 EUR fine in Baden-Wrttemberg, Germany. Moreover, Belgium (Flanders region) is the only jurisdiction where there is a possibility of imprisonment for unlawful use of the title 'university '. It also emerges that foreign private higher education institutions are eligible to apply for the designation of 'university ' in all of the examined countries, except the Flanders region.

We must wait to see if and when The Netherlands brings these changes into force, but Zoontjens ' research suggests that legally protecting the title 'university ' may help in the fight against diploma mills in the country. Paul explains, ""It is a small step then, to use accreditation (and criminal law) as a means to differentiate between institutions. It could mean that an organisation cannot have and apply degree awarding power without prior testing and without being in breach of prohibitive rules. Secondly, when an institution can be designated as a university it is ""automatically"" susceptible to state supervision and to rules concerning the quality of facilities and personnel. To conclude, the legal protection of the term ""university"" will complicate the possibilities of organisations to act as diploma mills.""

The fake diploma industry appears to have grown rapidly with the advent of the internet and the lack of higher education regulation provides a haven for diploma mill organisations. Paul stresses, ""We need effective legal instruments to prevent these ""bad"" suppliers from doing their harmful work."" He emphasizes that the issue of diploma mill operations in the European Union needs to be addressed, whether this is by the member states within the framework of the Bologna process or the responsibility of the EU-institutions.

The report concludes by highlighting the importance of higher education law enforcement and the need for international co-operation and exchange of information between countries and jurisdictions in order to help eradicate diploma mills. Accredibase provides an international platform for sharing information regarding diploma mills and assessing the validity of issued accreditations and qualifications. Therefore, as Zoontjens suggests, tools such as Accredibase may aid enforcement of higher education regulations in the future.

Professor Zoontjens report Protecting 'university ' as a designation - analysis and comparison of the legal position in several countries is published in English in Education Law Journal (Issue 2, Volume 11, 2010, p. 117-131)."