UK Watchdog Cracks Down on ‘Bogus’ Universities

(Photo: Beta News)

(Photo: Beta News)

More than 30 fake universities have been shut down in the past year by the Higher Education Degree Datacheck (HEDD) in the United Kingdom, an organization that investigates bogus institutions.

HEDD has identified 62 fake universities in the past year, but only 32 have been closed by law enforcement and trading standards agencies. 30 investigations are still in progress.

80% of the institutions reported to HEDD cannot be closed down because they are based outside Britain.

According to PressTV, HEDD's director Jayne Rowley said:

"All the ones that were shut down were completely bogus. The completely fake sites that talk of campuses of students when there's literally nothing there at all."

In one example, a university's listed address was actually "an empty shop front in Hyde in Cheshire."

Four more institutions are legitimate businesses, but need to make it clear to prospective students that they cannot award UK degrees.

Depending on whether the fake university in question was breaching trademarks and copyright or going against the Education Reform Act and misleadingly calling itself a university, HEDD might work with the Metropolitan police, the National Crime Agency, or the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, Trading Standards.

Since 2011, 220 fake universities in the UK have been identified and 80% have been shut down, reports David Batty of the Guardian.

However, even those that were shut down remain a problem because employers often won't double-check a prospective employee's qualifications.

Rowley said:

"The overall figure of the number of recruiters who check degree qualifications with the awarding body is only about 20%. So an awful lot of fraud goes undetected. Only two-thirds of employers actually ask to see a degree certificate; a tthird will rely on CVs."

The situation is unlikely to improve as the government plans to open up the education sector and give degree-awarding powers to new private providers, which will add to regulatory burden:

"I think there's a very big risk this will become a more serious problem. I think the proposals to expand provision in the HE bill can lead to people abusing the new degree-awarding powers. If the number [of universities] swells by several hundred it's going to be easier for … bogus operators to get in under the radar."

She also cited the rise of online learning and massive open online courses (MOOCs) as a reason the problem might grow:

"With the onset of the internet and distance learning, degree fraud is a borderless crime and we must collaborate with agencies around the world to deal with it. The fact that so much can be delivered online means it's very, very easy, you don't even have to have a building anymore to run a supposed [higher education] institution."

HEDD is working together with Prospects, a group of graduate career experts, reports Aftab Ali of the Independent. The Department for Education has commissioned the two organizations to fight against degree fraud. In the next two years, the focus will stay local.

Last year, the former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills appointed Prospects to reduce the number of unaccredited institutions by increasing prosecutions.

To help combat fraud, the organizations recommend avoiding sharing graduation selfies online, which they say helps bogus institutions access the latest designs for certificates.

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