HL Deb 11 November 2003 vol 654 cc1214-6

2.59 p.m.

Lord Watson of Richmondasked Her Majesty's Government:

What measures they are considering to prevent non-accredited universities being set up in the United Kingdom and charging substantial fees for degrees which have little value.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, existing legislation requires institutions in the UK offering British degree qualifications to be recognised. Companies registered with a place of business in Britain also need the permission of the Privy Council to use "university" in their title. Trading standards officers can take enforcement action against breaches. My department's website gives information on which institutions are recognised.

Lord Watson of Richmond

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, although I think that there are some very worrying questions still outstanding. Does the Minister agree, first, that the heart of this matter is that British universities require Privy Council approval and are also subject to inspection by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education? So-called foreign universities are in fact subject to inspection only by local authority weights and measures officers. This is a ludicrous and scandalous situation which is damaging to the academic reputation of this country. Secondly, does the Minister agree that having a PO box number does not qualify someone to set up a university in this country and sell degrees at £4,000 per year?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, the Education Reform Act 1988 and the Business Names Act 1985 are the two key pieces of legislation that enable us to monitor the situation. However, the noble Lord is correct to point out that there are organisations that claim to be universities offering overseas degrees which we are unable to do much about. However, trading standards officers do enforce the law and prosecute bogus universities. None the less, these organisations operate through the Internet, which reveals to noble Lords that it is incredibly difficult to see how we would ultimately be able to monitor every single institution or organisation which claims to offer an overseas degree from an overseas website.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I declare an interest as vice-chairman of academic governors to one of the small but respectable American universities that trade in London—to wit, Richmond. Those universities are seriously disadvantaged by the existence of these illicit universities with which they have to compete in the market and with whom they are guiltlessly associated.

Is the Minister aware that, last July, her ministerial colleague, Mr Alan Johnson, wrote to Sir Cyril Taylor, the chairman of Richmond, acknowledging that: The American University of London is not a recognised university and it does not have Privy Council approval to use the word 'university' in its name"? Does the Minister accept that this situation has existed for well over a decade? When can we expect some action?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, on 29th October my honourable friend met Sir Cyril Taylor specifically to discuss the issues just raised by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk. As a result of that meeting, we have seen some action from trading standards departments and Companies House. I should also say to the noble Lord that my honourable friend agrees that we need to consider other ways to toughen the enforcement measures, as well as better ways of alerting students to the need to check whether institutions are accredited.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, is it not true that some of these degrees, in the words of the Question on the Order Paper, "which have little value" are in fact available in some of our accredited institutions here in the United Kingdom? What guarantees can the Government give that, if we do aim for the 50 per cent target which some of us have questioned for a long time, it will not mean simply more of the kind of degrees which have a question mark over them?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I think that my noble friend is completely wrong to link the activities that have been described by the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Quirk, with the reputable nature of the accredited institutions in this country. To be frank, I find that very surprising.

It is our view that, in a society such as ours, we should encourage those who are able and capable to go to university to get a degree. That is a laudable aim.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood

My Lords, can the Minister say how many such institutions there are in the UK? I am prompted to ask this question as a result of my experience a few years ago advising the Indonesian Government. They discovered that they had 1,200 institutions claiming to be universities, the vast majority of which were unaccredited. They felt that they could tackle the problem and they sought advice on the matter. I should say that I am not touting for business—the work was donepro bono through the British Council—but, on the other hand, what advice can the Minister call on to deal with the very real problem to which my noble friend Lord Quirk has drawn attention?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the fundamental point behind the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, is what is meant by, "in the United Kingdom". Where organisations or companies with a business address in the UK use the word "university" in their title, they must be approved by the Privy Council. But the words "in the United Kingdom" can mean a number of different things: access via the Internet, an accommodation address or a PO box number. Those are the issues which have proved to be most difficult. They are difficult because if we were simply to try to accredit all of those institutions and organisations, we would need to have some kind of accreditation for every possible qualification the world over. We would need to consider that very carefully; hence, we are looking at different ways of enforcing the law where we are best placed to do so.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Baroness has admitted in some of her responses that more could be done. Can we have an assurance that the higher education Bill, which we believe is due to start imminently either in this House or in another place, will contain clauses to address this problem?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Baroness will know that I am not in a position to comment on what is set out in the higher education Bill.

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