HC Deb 01 December 1972 vol 847 cc869-78

4.2 p.m.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

I am sure that the Under-Secretary has had many offers made to him in his life both as a Member of Parliament and outside the House, but I doubt whether any have been as educationally attractive as that which is made to all of us if we are interested in obtaining educational qualifications from organisations and establishments not normally recognised in the academic world.

If the hon. Gentleman has 25 dollars he can receive a traditional title, a doctorate: Doctor of Law, Doctor of Science, Doctor of Commercial Science and Doctor of Divinity. He will not have to produce any papers; he will have to produce only his money, and he will receive his certificate for the degree of his choice in a very ornate fashion on a piece of paper approximately 15 ins. by 19 ins. and it will be airmailed or posted to him wherever he may be. This is just one example—there are many more which I will give to him at the end of the debate, if he wishes—of the kind of underworld that is growing up in the whole sphere of educational, or rather psuedo-educational, qualifications.

Ten years ago the Committee of Vice-Chancellors put forward proposals for legislation to the then Ministry of Education seeking powers to restrict the award of degrees and honorary degrees only to authorised establishments and bodies. Nothing came of these proposals, but in 1963 the Robbins Report on Higher Education recommended that there should be similar legislation. Last Session and this Session, the hon. Member for Merton and Morden (Miss Fookes) and I, and one or two other hon. Members, raised with the Department of Education the whole question of taking some sort of action to stop or certainly to limit the way in which many of these organisations and bodies function.

When I have looked at the replies given to me and have discussed this matter with others, I have realised that there are difficulties in trying to curb this sort of thing. One of them is that there is no legal definition of a university or of a degree. Therefore, it is exceedingly difficult within the law to say who shall and who shall not award a degree, who shall call themselves a university or, as we all know in regard to independent education, who shall call themselves a school. It is not simply an educational matter which we have to consider. It is also a legal matter, and that produces many of the difficulties.

However, Mr. Bill Day, who is the secretary to the universities' entrance requirement departments, has gone into this matter extensively and given me a list of over 200 such organisations which sell some sort of degree. Some do this in return for money, without anything else; others also provide a paper that has very little academic merit. Evidence has also been provided by work done by Mr. Lyndon Jones of the South-West London College. We have to agree that the underworld of these pseudo-educational qualifications is mushrooming, not only abroad, where there are at least 200 such establishments, but also in Britain, where Mr. Day has put the figure at about 27, although I believe the Department has indicated that there are about 50 such organisations.

It is true that many of these colleges, such as the London Institute of Applied Research—a very grand title—include in some of their advertisements the fact that these degrees do not necessarily have an academic standing or are not recognised in the academic world. That is true, although the advertisements do not all carry that qualification.

That is not, however, my main point in wanting to pressurise the Government to do something about this matter. I am concerned about the dangers of obtaining qualifications which are not valid and which are misleading, the dangerous uses to which they can be put, and the way in which ill-informed people may well be taken in. Sussex University is very often embarrassed by what we call the degree mill of the Sussex College of Technology, which is often confused with it in its presentation of certificates and what I call pseudo or bogus degrees.

There are examples where the obtaining of a degree in this country from one of these organisations has led people to misrepresent themselves and led others to believe that the person they were employing was qualified. People dealing with the requirements for university entrance in Britain are frequently called upon by other countries to give evidence whether the qualification a person claims to have from a body in this country is an academically recognised qualification, one recognised in the same way as we recognise those of the universities we know well.

I give the hon. Gentleman some examples of the dangers which result from this sort of thing—dangers about which many people in the education world are concerned. Recently, in Michigan, a man calling himself a doctor of philosophy from the London School of Applied Science was put in charge of a group of child guidance clinics with responsibility for psychologically disturbed children. This man had no qualification to deal with that very important and difficult section of children—but, it may be said, foolishly or naïvely, his qualification had not been checked.

It is not always easy when one is abroad to check a qualification emanating from another country, as the Under-Secretary well knows, because he knows a little about dealing with the qualifications of many immigrants who come here to seek employment in the academic world based on qualifications they have received in establishments in their home countries.

The Sierra Leone Government were recently investigating the credentials of one of their embassy staff in America who had been appointed on the basis of an award from a British degree mill, an award that had no basis in the academic world and which meant nothing in relation to the job that he was trying to do.

It is in the developing world, in particular, where the thirst for knowledge and academic qualifications is great, and where they are regarded very much as status symbols and as steps to greater things, that many of these pseudo and phoney qualifications are used, and it is difficult for those employing individuals with these so-called qualifications to know how to check them or to decide whether they are valid.

Some individuals from developing countries who are not as sophisticated as many might be about this sort of thing may well believe, if they are asked to produce a paper to qualify for the degree as well as to pay some money, that they have a genuine educational qualification giving them some merit and some standing in the world. Such people are being deceived.

Those of us who are concerned about matters in the educational world are worried that people who have gained qualifications through study at recognised establishments should not be seen to be cheapened and to have their status diminished by this underworld of education qualification which is growing in this country and growing rapidly on the Continent, in America and elsewhere, using Britain in particular as a base because of the status it gives them from the high regard in which genuine British qualifications are held.

I want to give the Under-Secretary two more examples which highlight the problem. One of these was mentioned in The Times Higher Educational Supplement for October and is well know. It is a Coventry based organisation calling itself the Nebraska College of Physical Medicine. It describes the holder of the diploma which it sells as a graduate qualified in chiro-practice and osteopathy. Holders are qualified to call themselves doctors and to affix the letters "Phys. Med.Dr." after their names.

It may be said that people who go to osteopaths and other sections in and around the medical profession should check qualifications carefully, but most people are not aware of the distinction between medical qualifications. There is no doubt that some people are practising with these so-called qualifications and endangering people's lives and limbs.

I come to one of the gems that I have discovered, although there are many more. This was an advertisement in Punch but it was not meant to be funny, as so often Punch is meant to be. The advertisement says: Add prestige to your name. Join the International Knights of Goodwill. Members can also obtain degress—Ph.D. D.D., etc.—by correspondence courses and honorary degrees. For further information, Educational Services, Box No. so-and-so, USA. As I say, one could produce many more of these. Although I accept what the right hon. Lady said last week to the hon. Member for Merton and Morden and to myself—that there are very great difficulties surrounding legislation—it seems to me that it should not be beyond the wit of the Department of Education and Science to look closely at this matter and to produce some sort of suggestion whereby it is made clear as widely as possible which qualifications are recognised and which are not, and to devise some means of registering establishments thus excluding from registration those which are found to be part of the educational underworld.

4.15 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

It is time that this subject was given a good discussion, and I am certainly grateful, as I am sure the House is, to the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) for raising this important matter, which she has done with her usual flair and panache. I am also grateful to her for making my first Adjournment debate such an interesting one—and as I look round the Chamber I see that it has a certain intimate character as we conduct our dialogue.

The hon. Lady was kind enough to refer to the possibilities of my obtaining some certificates if I wished. I must inform her that I have more than an academic interest in this subject, as I have quite a large number of degrees myself. I counted them up for the purpose of this debate and I find that I have six, including two doctorates, all of them earned, and, so far as I know, none of them bogus. Since it has taken me eight years to reach my present position in the Department of Education and Science, they do not seem to have done me very much good.

The hon. Lady put the problem, quite rightly, in its world-wide setting. This problem is not unique to the United Kingdom. On another occasion in this House the hon. Lady spoke of the 200 degree mills overseas. That tallies broadly with the information in my Department. But the fact that it extends beyond this country is no reason for us to be complacent about it here. The hon. Lady referred to a list, which she said the Department had, of 50 institutions. In fact, we have information to that effect, but we have no list of our own. Our information comes from another source. We have not compiled anything ourselves.

I gather that this problem has been considered and reconsidered over the years, but whenever it has been considered it has always been judged to be either too complicated or too elusive to deal with, or, because of some other development in the educational field, it has not been thought particularly opportune. I think that the problem is still complicated, and still elusive but, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear on a number of occasions this year, she is herself very concerned about the situation and is anxious to do anything practicable which could alleviate it.

I ask the question: what is the issue at stake? What is the actual damage that is being done? Of course, one could say that in itself it is undesirable that this situation should exist at all. It is a case of malum in se that institutions should batten upon people's credulity and gullibility. I am afraid, however, that people are credible and gullible. This is one of the results of original sin, and I do not think one can do much about it at law. There is in any case the maxim of the common law caveat emptor. We must to a certain extent presume some common sense in people, and if an institution with a title such as the Philo-Byzantine University and Collective Affiliation of Constantine the Great—the title actually exists—offers a degree, one must be presumed to be on one's guard against it and to assume that it is not necessarily the equivalent of an Oxford degree.

I listened carefully to the hon. Lady in the hope that she could help me nail down the precise nature and extent of the abuse in a practical way. She produced three sets of cases. It was worth noting that the majority of them came from abroad, and from the United States in particular. She did, however, detail the case of the Nebraska University at Coventry, which seems a geographical monstrosity, of which I was not aware. We shall certainly look at that institution now that she has brought it to the attention of the Department.

The Robbins Report in paragraph 435 made a statement which is still generally valid today. It said: It is true that such degrees —it was referring to bogus degrees— have had limited appeal to residents in this island, but they have sometimes, through ignorance, proved attractive to people abroad, and have caused embarrassment to those concerned witth the repute of British education. Perhaps the hon. Lady will forgive me if I say that it is one of the beneficial side effects of having a territorial aristocracy that we in Britain are not so impressed by academic titles as are people overseas. By and large the most serious danger is that students abroad, particularly in developing countries, may be misled.

The other problem to which the hon. Lady drew attention are the "degree mills", which trade on a reputable name and give qualifications or designatory letters which have a specious resemblance to those of a university or reputable professional body. She instanced the case of Sussex University, which suffered by comparison and confusion with the Sussex College of Technology which, I think, has traded on this similarity.

It must not be thought that there are no remedies in existing law for this situation. There are. Sections 15 and 16 of the Theft Act, 1968 are relevant; Section 16 refers to obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception. That might well be called into play. There is also the possibility of a civil action; so it is clear that there are remedies in the law.

The question arises whether we should add to those remedies. The hon. Lady suggested that we should and the same suggestion has been made in the Robbins Report. She mentioned the Committee of Vice-Chancellors. The difficulty is that all these people have made recommendations that something should be done but none of them has suggested exactly how. Let me outline the actual legal position. The award of degrees is a prerogative of the Crown which is commonly granted as a franchise to universities, usually by Royal Charter but occasionally by Act of Parliament. There are also certain individuals such as the Archbishop of Canterbury who have the power to award degrees. Such legislation as exists has been directed to protecting the monopoly of these institutions.

We must consider what a change in the law would achieve. I suspect that the problem here would be of the enforcement of the law, and that this would be very difficult. The problem of spurious qualifications is rather like dealing with a many-headed hydra. As soon as one head is cut off another appears. The situation cannot be treated, like Lavinia, by cutting off the hands as well as the tongue. Or, as the Secretary of State said on 23rd November, if the degrees are eliminated there would be a fresh crop of associateships, fellowships, licentiateships, and so on.

If we try to legislate more widely, it seems clear that we shall run into immense practical difficulties. There is nothing clear-cut on to which we can fasten. The awards of universities, further education colleges and professional bodies, as those terms are normally understood, are clearly respectable, and are accepted generally. But, once we get outside that recognised Establishment, the lines become blurred. There is a great variety of bodies offering courses and qualifications, over which my right hon. Friend has no control. It is amongst that group that we find the harmful operators, the underworld as the hon. Lady vividly described them, who take advantage of their legitimate confreres. She instanced the blatant degree mills which offer qualifications without any courses.

What can we do? There are a number of lines of action that I think are more fruitful than legislation. I suggest to the hon. Lady, because she is now one of the experts in the House on the subject, that she could broaden her campaign to take in the Council of Europe, where a committee on higher education and research is looking into the equivalence of diplomas. It has issued a list of institutions not recognised as institutions on the scientific level by constituent countries.

I know that the hon. Lady is not a great fan of the Common Market, but she might like to know that the European Economic Community is also concerned with the question, under Article 57 of the Treaty of Rome. That deals with the freedom of movement of qualified people, which makes the matter even more urgent. Perhaps we should seek to tackle it on that level.

What about the Department? We can certainly give help, but only with regard to specific functions. It is not our function to say what is a bogus institution. What we can say is what is a genuine institution, and what is a genuine institution for certain purposes, such as qualified teaching status or the Burnham salary arrangements. The difficulty is that once the Department starts issuing lists we move from a position where we can indicate that there is nothing against the organisations on it to a position where it is understood that we are recommending particular organisations. Others which are not on the list will clamour to get on it—the difference between a nihil obstat and an imprimatur, an important distinction but one that is not always easy for the general public to grasp.

Miss Lestor

Nor me.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am sure that the hon. Lady will rise to this occasion, as to every other.

As my right hon. Friend said on 23rd November, she is considering how she can best make information more widely available about United Kingdom degrees and other recognised qualifications. It is along those lines that something may well be done that is both helpful and practical. She hopes to make such information available in the right places fairly soon. She has particularly in mind students in developing countries, to which the hon. Lady referred. My right hon. Friend will certainly be glad to consider the suggestions the hon. Lady made in her brilliant contribution, and for that matter suggestions from anyone else. There are hon. Members, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Merton and Morden (Miss Fookes) and Bourne mouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle) and the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton), who have taken an interest in the subject. If they have practical suggestions, I hope that they will put them to my Department, and we shall consider them.

Meanwhile, may I again express to the hon. Lady my gratitude to her for having raised the subject and for having dealt with it in her usual workmanlike and attractive way.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.