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Institutes to be avoided # 1

Far from funny
Geoffrey Alderman
The Guardian

Imagine you’re an ambitious but naïve 18-year-old living somewhere in the Middle East, or the Indian subcontinent. None of your family has ever been to a university, and you have no friends to whom you can turn for advice as to which university to choose.
You love surfing the web. One day you reach the website of a university in London, England. Its tuition fees are much lower than those charged by “regular” British universities. What’s more, it has the word “American” and/or “International” in its title. Even better, it claims to possess a “licence” and/or something called “accreditation”.

To be honest, you’re not sure what these words mean. But surely the UK government would never permit a university that was not 100% legitimate to operate in its borders?

You send off for a prospectus, which turns out to be high quality and business-like. So you pay your money and travel to London, England, only to find that what you thought was a university is actually a series of classrooms above some shops. To be sure, there are teachers and you are taught. But as you interact with other students, and learn more about the university and about British and American higher education, you start asking some awkward questions, the sort you ought to have asked before you parted with your money. And you discover some ugly facts.

To begin with, the “university” you’re attending may be located in Britain. But it’s certainly not a regular “British” university, one that is (for example) in membership of the UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. It has the word “American” in its title. But you discover that legitimate American universities are “accredited” by one of a limited number of accrediting agencies listed on the website of the United States’ department of education (ed.gov). Your “university” has no such accreditation.

Its own website, which you did consult back home, has a section called “accreditation”. But this does not list any of the bodies recognised by the United States government. Instead, it lists something called a chamber of commerce. “Yes,” the chamber of commerce tells you, “the university you’re attending pays an annual subscription to us, but we’re a trade organisation, not a university accrediting body.”

Changing tack, you decide to leave the “university” and apply to a properly accredited American or British establishment, hoping that whatever “credits” you’ve already earned will be transferred over. Well, they won’t. They are, in fact, practically worthless. They may offer good courses but their qualifications do not have currency with British and US universities.

The scenario I’ve described is, unfortunately, not a figment of my imagination. It is an amalgam of a number of real cases I’ve had to deal with over the years where students have not appreciated the distinction between properly accredited universities and organisations operating legally in the UK but without sound accreditation. And the really bad news is that the problem seems to be getting worse, not better.

Take the “American University in London”, at 97-101 Seven Sisters Road, London. AUL’s Website (aul.edu) suggests that it has accreditation from the American and Islington chambers of commerce; on closer inspection, it is simply a member of these chambers.

Take Boston College of London, accredited by the British Accreditation Council and situated at 15 Leeland Road, West Ealing. According to the website of “American Coastline University”, Boston College is now part of its “university system”. American Coastline is apparently a subdivision of “the International University of Fundamental Studies”, “fully accredited” in Russia. I cannot myself see anything distinctively “American” about ACU, other than that it operates from a forwarding address in Louisiana.

Talking of forwarding addresses, did you know that there is a “Canterbury University” with an office at 193 Market Street, Hyde, Cheshire, which also happens to be the address of Mail Accommodation Office Services? “Canterbury University” claims accreditation from “the United Congress of Colleges”, whose headquarters are said to be in the Irish Republic.

And if you really want a laugh, visit earlscroft.com, the website of “Earlscroft University”, which has an “administrative office” in Dulwich, London, “affiliated divisions” in the Irish Republic and is registered in the Seychelles. Earlscroft makes clear it is not accredited in the UK, but claims to be able to grant a degree within 21 days, following a rigorous online “academic appraisal” process grounded in “prior learning or life experience”.

But of course these outfits are really nothing to laugh about. The fact that they are able to operate in the UK within the law is deeply worrying. The law needs tightening as a matter of urgency.

· Geoffrey Alderman is vice-president of American InterContinental University, London, which is fully accredited in the US and is a member institution of the UK Quality Assurance Agency. Professor Alderman writes in a personal capacity.

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