Trouble in the Valleys (or rather, the universities)

Posted on: 14 October 2011 by Alexander Hay

Corrupt practices at the University of Wales have called into question not only the future of the institution, but the good name of British higher education and the government's future plans for it

Judging by the large amount of money in this image, it's probably not an English degree...An overlooked scandal continues to take its toll at some of our oldest universities, while the national media looks the other way:

"The University of Wales Institute Cardiff has become the latest institution to distance itself from the scandal-hit University of Wales.

The institution said that it would change its name to Cardiff Metropolitan University and award its own degrees...

...The University of Wales has been rocked by revelations last week that staff at a college at which it validated degrees had offered to sell qualifications to an undercover reporter as part of a visa scam.

The Welsh education secretary Leighton Andrews said on BBC radio this morning that the university “probably requires a decent burial”.

I made a statement to the Assembly earlier this week saying that the Welsh government was very concerned about the University of Wales and the damage it is causing to the reputation both [of] higher education in Wales and of the country around the world,” he said."

Like most overnight disasters, the University of Wales scandal has been taking root for a very long time, helped along by near indifference from the non-Welsh media. Many private 'universities', offering Business Studies or Computing degrees to foreign students, claim validation by the University of Wales, while selling themselves as UK-based institutions with grandiose names. Which is to say, if you complete a degree course at a private college, which usually charges a great deal of money, your degree will in effect be awarded by the Welsh university.

This in itself is not unusual. Many degrees from perfectly legitimate higher education institutions without their own degree awarding powers are awarded this way. (Including mine.) There is only a problem when the institution either doesn't validate the degrees awarded in its name or lets standards slip, or uses it as a means to rip off naive students from the Third World.

One notorious example was the case of La Sainte Union College of Higher Education. Its accrediting body, the University of Southampton, was forced to close it in 1997 after LSU failed a key part of its evaluation process. From that point on, Southampton became much more involved in the other Higher Education colleges it oversaw, eager to avoid its reputation being besmirched. (It was and is, after all, part of the elite Russell Group of research-driven universities.)

No such caution, however, seems to have been exhibited by the University of Wales. In particular, it is alleged to have validated fake institutions that try to palm off fake or inferior courses, or even no course at all, on naive foreign students who often spend a great deal of money on a worthless qualification.

This exploitation continues until the student's visa runs out - many are forced to hand out free newspapers or leaflets to support themselves, being unable to return home until finally deported. Those who applied simply to get a visa by deception no doubt feel less aggrieved.

Similarly, degrees 'validated' by the University of Wales have also included bogus or dubious courses aimed at domestic students and offering training in pseudo-science like chiropractics, herbalism and 'Alternative Nutrition', some of which encourage dangerous practices like untested folk remedies.

Naturally, the University of Wales cannot be blamed entirely for this. Letting it happen over the years has been the Quality Assurance Agency, the quango in charge of university quality control, that rubber-stamped some very dubious accreditations without much oversight or, indeed, any verification at all.

This does not bode well for the reputation of universities, already under pressure over fees, concerns about quality and an ugly, sneering anti-intellectualism on the part of the media and public. Their reputations may further deteriorate as a result.

But the scandal does not bode well either for the government's plans to bring ever greater private sector involvement into higher education. As demonstrated, the combination of money and non-profit institutions being corrupted by it means that the profit motive isn't compatible with the academy, which would in any case be obvious if the American experience of for-profit fly-by-night rip off 'colleges' is anything to go by.

That won't stop the government proceeding as before, of course. After all, few outside Wales seems to care that our universities are fast losing their reputations, and even Oxbridge graduates can be shockingly stupid...

[SOURCE: Times Higher Education Supplement]


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Alexander Hay

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