Page last updated at 18:30 GMT, Monday, 7 January 2008

Bogus university scam uncovered

Investigation
By Nigel Morris
BBC London Investigations Producer

An international education scam that targets foreign students who come to study in the capital has been exposed by a BBC London investigation.

The bogus Irish International University (IIU), which offers sub-standard and worthless degrees, has been allowed to flourish in the UK - virtually unchecked by the government - for the last seven years.

Although the organisation is unaccredited, hundreds of students have been given educational visas to enter Britain and take its exams at private colleges in London.

The IIU, which has 5,000 students worldwide and thousands of graduates, maintains the illusion of a valid education through its elaborate but highly misleading website.

This illusion is enhanced by the university's continued use of Oxford and Cambridge facilities to stage its award ceremonies.

After each event photographs appear on the IIU website showing happy students receiving awards at the UK's best seats of learning.

Our investigation took us from London to Dublin, Oxford and finally Monte Carlo in search of those behind the IIU.

A BBC journalist and an actor posing as fake academic were invited to the IIU's award ceremony which, surprisingly, was held at the Divinity School, next to the Bodleian Library, in the very heart of Oxford University.

The ceremony was due to go ahead at Cambridge, but after BBC London alerted the university authorities the event was cancelled. That did not stop the IIU switching venues to Oxford at the last minute.

Dublin campus?

In Oxford, our journalist and actor secretly filmed the award ceremony and recorded meetings with university boss and Executive President Professor Hardeep Singh Sandhu, a Malaysian businessman and faculty member Dr Edwin Varo.

Dr Varo, told us that the IIU was not bogus and was registered in Ireland and that it had applied to the government and had been given approval to use the word university.

In Dublin, Sean O'Foghlu, Chief Executive of the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, told BBC London: "To use the word university in a title it needs approval from our Department of Education and Science - no such approval has been given by our department."

The university website clearly stated that the university had a campus in Dublin. We visited the address given by the IIU on its website - there was no campus, just a mailbox.

When you look at the website, it's a figment of someone's imagination.
Professor Jeffrey Wooller

The website also claimed that the IIU's educational programmes were accredited and quality controlled by the impressive sounding QAC-UK Ltd - the Quality Assurance Commission, based in North London.

During secretly filmed meetings, Professor Sandhu told our undercover team that the QAC was an "independent body" that maintained the quality of education in the UK and elsewhere.

Faculty member, Dr Varo explained that the QAC staff: "Focus more on your curriculum - on your teaching; focus on your evaluation - they focus on your faculty - who are your faculty - what amount of real teaching takes place."

The QAC website listed an impressive roll-call of staff including the QAC Commissioner General and an Acting Commissioner General.

Our reporter visited the QAC and instead of finding a commissioner general we found four telephonists fielding calls for countless companies at yet another virtual office.

A further check at Companies House revealed that far from the being "independent" the QAC is in fact owned by university boss Professor Dr Sandhu.

The UK has some of the toughest regulations in the world governing the award of higher education qualifications.
Bill Rammell
Higher Education Minister

Bona fide academic, Professor Geoffrey Alderman, gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on the subject of bogus institutions.

He told us: "Some of these colleges will say, 'sure we're accredited', but when you say 'by whom?', they name an accrediting institution which in fact they themselves own."

University boss Professor Sandhu, who sits on the governing council is a Doctor of Letters, a doctorate awarded by another unaccredited university based in the Caribbean.

His professorship is "honorary", awarded by a European association set up to give out professorships.

On the website he also called himself "Sir H Sandhu" but his knighthood was not bestowed on him by the Queen.

One person missing from the Oxford award ceremony was the university's Honorary Chancellor, His Excellency Baron Knowth - real name Professor Jeffrey Wooller - a successful chartered accountant from London.

Professor Wooller, a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, owns a £1.2m townhouse in Kensington but spends most of his time living as a tax exile in Monte Carlo.

Our actor, again posing as a fake academic, arranged to meet Professor Wooller, at a hotel in Monaco. We secretly filmed this meeting.

'Dreamt up'

He told our fake academic that the IIU was not "recognised anywhere".

He admitted to our actor that the website was an illusion: "When you look at the website, it's a figment of someone's imagination. Someone's dreamt up what a university should look like, and that's what's on the website."

Professor Wooller told us that students paid a lot of money to attend the award ceremonies, adding: "If you can mention Oxford, Cambridge then the whole world thinks that it must be a good university."

He then said of the university's operation: "The whole thing's dodgy." He even said that the IIU's governing council, of which he and Professor Sandhu are both members, did not exist.

A BBC London reporter then confronted Professor Wooller:

Reporter: You said the whole thing is dodgy.

Mr Wooller: It is dodgy!

Reporter: Oh so you admit it's dodgy?

Mr Wooller: Of course it's dodgy.

He also told our reporter that he had been given his professorship by the IIU and that he had bought his "Baron" title.

Professor Wooller refused to quit as honorary chancellor stating that most IIU students were happy and that the university was good value for money.

Professor John Arnold of Loughborough University has seen coursework from an IIU graduate.

He said: "Students are paying for this, what I would regard as worthless and bogus qualifications. I would say buyer beware from the point of view of students.

"You know I really think that they'll probably be getting qualifications which are unlikely to be taken seriously at least in Western Europe."

'Banned'

Following BBC London's investigation the IIU will now no longer be allowed to use Oxford and Cambridge's facilities to stage their award ceremonies.

Oxford University issued a statement stating that they would not be renting its facilities to the Irish International University in the future.

The IIU website survives but since our investigation it has undergone a radical overhaul.

The reference to a Dublin campus has been removed, the QAC is "no longer involved with the Irish International University" and its logo no longer appears on the website.

Professor Sandhu told BBC London that the university will not renew its affiliations with any private colleges in London.

The government is promising that by 2009 all colleges wishing to bring overseas applicants into the country will need to be accredited.

Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell said: "Our universities are rightly regarded as world class and any attempt by bogus institutions or conmen to tarnish this hard won reputation will not be tolerated.

"The UK has some of the toughest regulations in the world governing the award of higher education qualifications. The vast majority of private colleges in London operate lawfully and provide a high-quality service to their students.

"We are working very hard on behalf of students to ensure that all private institutions meet strict quality standards.

"Where we are not satisfied that this is the case with a particular college, we will not hesitate to investigate and if necessary, close it down.

"I would encourage all new students to carefully check the credentials of the college they wish to enrol at and if they have any concerns, contact their local trading standards team."

The full investigation can be seen in two parts on BBC London News at 6.30 pm on Monday 7 January and Tuesday 8 January.



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