Britain is the European capital for bogus universities with more than twice as many unaccredited institutions in the UK as genuine ones, according to Accredibase, a global database of unlicensed rogue universities.
The database now has 339 entries for unlicensed institutions that claim to be based in the UK, an increase of 68 in the past year. The list, which is compiled by Verifile, a CV verification company, names 1,008 unaccredited universities – or “degree mills” – in the US.
In the UK, it is illegal for an institution to falsely claim that it has the power to award a British degree. It is, however, not illegal for universities to operate in the UK if they claim to be accredited in foreign countries.
But Eyal Ben-Cohen, managing director of Verifile, said that “there is really no other way to describe the issuance of fake university degrees [than] as... organized crime”.
The service offered by these unaccredited institutions is to confirm to employers that individuals hold the qualifications they claim. Some unlicensed universities claim to be accredited by agencies such as the “World Association of Universities and Colleges”. But these accreditors, some of which claim scores of members, are not officially recognized.
Unlicensed universities attempt to pass themselves off as genuine institutions. Cambridgeshire University and Oxford International University are not licensed.
One institution, Sherwood University, lists an address that makes it appear to be part of London Metropolitan University, a genuine English university.
Many bogus institutions identified by Accredibase share addresses and phone numbers. Accredibase found 19 fake universities sharing the same web server to host their websites, and 10 sharing linked phone numbers.
Mr Ben-Cohen said the government had “started to take action against fake universities because of immigration”. One illicit route into the UK involved using false colleges to sponsor student visa applications. This process is being reviewed, and will be made more stringent as part of efforts to reduce net immigration to under 100,000 people per year.
Damian Green, immigration minister, said the UK Border Agency had closed 58 institutions in the past year.
However, fake universities pose a broader problem. The Accredibase report warns that “as university education becomes more expensive and commercialized, students could increasingly resort to the ‘quick fix’ solution offered by bogus providers”.
The scale of the problem is hard to ascertain: a search of networking site LinkedIn shows about 2,500 people claiming degrees from Almeda College, a long-running degree mill.
Mr Ben-Cohen said Verifile had offered its finding to the Serious Organised Crime Agency.
David Willetts, universities minister, said: “It is very important that we stamp out this abuse. The ‘university’ title is something precious and hard-won. It shouldn’t be exploited in this way.”