By Sean Coughlan and Gary Eason
BBC News Online education staff
A college claiming to offer degree courses in the United Kingdom is not accredited to do so, officials say.
Degrees can be awarded only by accredited institutions
Britain College of Management and Science describes itself on its website as "the historical college in the city of London".
But its address is in a high street in Essex and it was using an office service to handle phone calls.
Following BBC News Online's enquiries, the legitimate company running that service said it was disconnecting the line.
A News Online user had e-mailed complaining about colleges, supposedly based in the United Kingdom, trying to "attract and exploit innocent students from abroad".
Hanging up the phone
When he tried to contact Britain College, which was advertising a wide range of degree courses, he said they were reluctant to see him in person.
"When I phoned up this college and ask them that I would like a visit, they simply hang up.
"Is there any way that these bogus colleges can be stamped out of the market as they are luring innocent students from abroad?" he wrote.
The college's website has been drastically pruned since Tuesday - reduced to only a front page and a contacts page.
Its downloadable prospectus said it "currently awards three different degrees" - BSc, BA and BEng.
It said application must be made through the official Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, Ucas.
But a Ucas spokesperson said: "They are not a member institution of Ucas. We are unable to vouch for any organisations that are not members of our organisation."
The prospectus also says postgraduate applications may be made direct to the college, and promises to make a decision on them within three weeks.
"Please note that most international applicants are now required to pay a deposit of £400 to the college before we will issue an unconditional acceptance."
The college's website had offered hundreds of undergraduate, graduate, GCSE and A-level courses, presenting a portrait of an historic and attractive institution.
There were medieval manuscripts in the library, picturesque buildings and a location in central London.
"The College was founded and has been providing education and training for the local and wider community ever since that time" it said - without saying which time.
Students were invited to join an exciting social life: "From jazz to cheese, green issues and welfare provision - it all happens in the Junior Parlour and Graduate Parlour."
The website also claimed some famous comedians had been part of "the BCMS Players" and that students could join a Winnie the Pooh society.
These words have a familiar ring to those who know the website of the (genuine and genuinely historic) Pembroke College, Cambridge.
And Britain College described in detail the requirements for "our Bachelor degree courses", taught Masters courses and doctorates.
But the Department for Education and Skills was not impressed.
Having checked the website, it said Britain College had no powers to award UK degrees - and as such degrees bought through it would not be accredited.
"The degrees of Britain College of Management are not recognised by or under the Education Reform Act 1988," said a Department for Education and Skills spokesperson.
"It is illegal in the UK for any unrecognised organisation to pretend to be a 'university' or to offer a qualification which could be taken to be a UK degree."
The college also claims it is affiliated to an authentic, bona fide university in the United States - Adelphi University in New York.
But Bonnie Eissner, a spokesperson for Adelphi, rejected any link.
"We are not affiliated with the organisation. The claim is fraudulent," she said - and the university was passing the affiliation claim to its lawyers.
Despite the claims made to overseas students that the college was in the middle of London, the contact address was in Mill Hill, north-west London and calls were picked up by an answering service.
In response to requests for an interview with someone at the college, on Wednesday that service told BBC News Online it was terminating the phone line.
For a reader in the UK the website's language and depiction of student life might sound stilted - but it might be less obvious to young applicants from overseas.
The British Council says any overseas students considering studying in the UK could check with it to ensure the legitimacy of universities and colleges.
Nick Butler, export manager for education at the British Council, says several bogus universities appear each year - and students should be wary.
But he says the rapid globalisation of education is likely to attract a more diverse range of private providers - and there could be a greater risk of confusion.
More students are set to study overseas - and more universities are set to open overseas campuses - and he warns that there will be "more of these shadowy organisations wanting to make a quick buck".
Although the awarding of qualifications is tightly regulated, there is no such regulation on businesses calling themselves a "college" or "institute".
"Students need to check if a college is awarding degrees which are valid. The people who are setting up these institutions play on a lack of awareness," Mr Butler said.
In particular, students who might think they were getting a bargain should be wary.
"There can be students who are desperate for an overseas qualification and might look for cheap options," he said.
But buying a degree from an unaccredited university will mean they have a piece of paper which has no academic value.
The director of funding and development at the Association of Colleges, Julian Gravatt, said: "Unfortunately for the legitimate college sector bogus institutions can use the word 'college' without approval of government - unlike the word 'university', which requires the approval of the Privy Council."