HL Deb 17 June 2004 vol 662 cc867-9

11.24 a.m.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a former vice-chancellor of London University and as a current governor of the Richmond American University in London, both of which institutions have had nasty brushes with the bodies named in my Question.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is the legal status of the bodies known as the American University in London and the American University of London; and what action is being taken with respect to their activities.

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

My Lords, those institutions are not universities that are recognised by the UK authorities and do not have Privy Council approval to use university title in a business name. Furthermore, neither of those institutions is accredited in the United States.

Our department has contacted both Islington and Kensington and Chelsea trading standards officers. Trading standards are still investigating options for enforcement under the Education Reform Act 1988, the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1988, the Companies Act 1985 and the Business Names Act 1985.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I note that it is the Department for Education and Skills that has taken responsibility for responding to my Question, and I am grateful to the Minister. But given that two other departments of state have a valid concern in this 10-year saga, does the Minister accept that no small part of my frustration is the feeling that it has become something of a pass-the-parcel game between the Home Office, the DTI and the Department for Education and Skills? Does the Minister also accept that as well as providing a handy route for dodgy entry visas, the selling of dodgy degree diplomas tarnishes the reputation of higher education in this country?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, in preparing for this Question, I ensured that we consulted our colleagues in the Home Office and the DTI. I do not believe that it is a case of passing the parcel. It is incredibly difficult to deal with these issues. I understand the noble Lord's frustration, but, as he knows well, the Acts to which I referred are those under which we are able to undertake any prosecutions or to work with colleagues in trading standards. That is very difficult when there are companies that have addresses in, say, the West Indies, as occurred in one case, or which operate solely on the Internet where there are real issues about operating on an international basis.

Lord Dearing

My Lords, the Minister said that these are incredibly difficult issues to deal with. That probably suggests that we need a better way of dealing with them. Does she not agree that the careful supervision of the right to use the title "university" in this country is an important safeguard to our students? It is an important asset to British universities that are seeking to attract students from the marketplaces of the world. As higher education increasingly becomes a tradable service, that is an important issue.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords. I could not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, more. Again, I was careful to check the exact figures. We have education exports worth about £10.2 billion to the UK economy, of which higher education exports contributes just over £4 billion. As the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, may know, we are consulting on the new criteria for degree-awarding powers and university title. Consultation is out at the moment: it finishes on 25 June. We will publish new criteria for degree-awarding powers and university title later.

The DfES plans to set up a register of learning providers in the United Kingdom, which will include public and private-funded providers. That will confirm that the organisations exist and are providing learning.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, I declare an interest as pro-chancellor of the University of London. Can the Minister confirm the recent reports that the Immigration Service has been detecting people who have arrived in this country to study at institutions that latterly have been discovered not to exist? Do the Government maintain a list of existing organisations and institutions to which foreign student entry is appropriate? Do they make that list available to the Immigration Service?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I, too, read the press reports. This morning my officials have been trying to determine what more can be ascertained. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is due to make an announcement very, very shortly—if I can say that—about a register of learning providers. Indeed, that will be an important way in which people can understand what is registered and what is not.

One of the issues is that negligible numbers of students complain about the two institutions that the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, has rightly indicated would never be on a register of such a kind. They do not offer anything that we would recognise. In itself, that creates some difficulties if the understanding is that there are no complaints against them.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the advisory committee of the Association of Independent Higher Education Providers. Having done so, can I ask my noble friend whether she holds any views on the desirability of entry visas being designated for a specific educational establishment when they are granted overseas? Would it not help enormously in the effort to crack down on bogus students if, when entry visas were issued for the pursuit of higher education, they were designated for a specific purpose and for that purpose to be executed at a specific college?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I have views on everything. However, I would be moving completely outside my area of knowledge if I were to respond directly to that question. I think that I must consult with colleagues in the Home Office because I am not qualified to give a specific answer.

Referring back to the original Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, one of the issues about these particular institutions is that they do not have a physical presence. There are no buildings. In one case there is an accommodation address, and an Internet site for the other. So this is not about students arriving here to study in those institutions because they physically do not exist.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that it would be useful to list the bona fide institutions so that overseas students applying to study in Britain could have at least some assurance that the institution to which they are applying is not bogus?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I hope that the imminent announcement by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will go a long way to achieving that. It will ensure that people are aware of which institutions are recognised. Moreover, we already provide information about recognised degrees and institutions in the UK on our website.