We have all had to get accustomed to ‘fake news’, but we should also pay attention to the rise of fake universities. For those who think this is a minor issue, the global statistics do not support them. It is a feature both of developing and developed countries, and it is surprisingly difficult to police.
Recently India’s University Grants Commission listed 23 fake universities operating in the country. Neighbouring Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission found 153 illegal or fake institutions. In the United States the Michigan Civil Service Commission has published a list of American institutions whose credentials it does not accept, and it is a long list. A Swedish university has estimated that, worldwide, there are some 2,500 fake universities, some of them with no fixed location at all and ‘hiding in cyberspace’.
The UK also encounters this problem: the Guardian newspaper reported last year that 220 bogus British ‘universities’ have been identified since 2011. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has set up an service called ‘Higher Education Degree Datacheck’, which allows employers and various bodies and agencies to check the credentials of an institution (and, for a fee, of the qualifications of a particular graduate). The website tells me, for example, that my own university (Robert Gordon University) is a ‘UK government-recognised university or college which currently gives degree awards’; but that something calling itself ‘International University Robert Gordon’ is not a valid degree-awarding body.
What all this tells us is that the credentials of a university matter. It is all too easy to adopt or make up a university name and then trade with it, exploiting the desire of people to acquire a status with which to better themselves. Some such ‘institutions’ may offer an element of instruction, some may just sell diplomas and degree certificates. But all of them undermine the purpose of education and the validity of higher education qualifications.
It is therefore all the more important that government authorities in all countries operate an effective method of accrediting universities, or institutions permitted to call themselves universities. This is in the vital interests of all legitimate institutions (including private universities). Equally of course it is important to ensure that the conditions attaching to such accreditation do not compromise institutional autonomy; and getting that balance right is not always easy.
But all of this pre-supposes that our understanding of higher education and of the awards of HE institutions remains more or less as we have it now. Technology, globalisation and mobility may yet create an international education and training sector whose aims are not the same as those of traditional universities and whose customers have different expectations of their educational experience and outputs. Some of this activity may be totally legitimate; and maintaining a recognisable international higher education sector that follows traditional patterns may not be altogether easy.