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Buckingham teams up with controversial school

Britain's only private university has signed a deal with a controversial Italian-based business school that should mean the number of students graduating with Buckingham University degrees will double within three years.

Buckingham has agreed to put its name to degrees delivered by the European School of Economics, an 11-year-old institution that has appeared in The Times Higher 's Whistleblower column on several occasions over problems such as the failure to pay its staff.

Buckingham insisted this week that it had carried out extensive due diligence tests and was confident that it could "knock the ESE into shape".

Terence Kealey, Buckingham vice-chancellor, said: "We are pleased to help an independent university college. We understand that the ESE has had its difficulties, but we are confident that under the direction of Laura Mogavero (the managing director) it will prosper."

The deal is projected to bring in almost £500,000 for Buckingham by 2008, and it will double the number of students receiving its awards from about 700 to 1,400.

ESE was founded in 1994 by two Italian businessmen - the former 1960s pop star Elios d'Anna and his brother Stephano - with the aim of "preparing a new generation of visionary leaders."

Within six years of its creation, it had 2,500 students on 12 campuses in Italy, Paris, London and New York.

The status of ESE's British-validated degrees and the right of ESE's Italian students to postpone their military service were both challenged by the Italian authorities in 2001. After long court battles, the ESE won both cases.

But the school was blighted by other problems. The Times Higher reported in 2002 that some London-based staff had resorted to withholding student marks and, in one case, even hiring a debt collector to obtain their salaries.

Documents also showed that staff had been teaching without access to basic library and computing facilities at the school's Grosvenor Place campus.

ESE now has 450 students on three campuses, in Lucca, Italy, New York and London.

A due diligence report on the school by Lawrie Drury, a consultant for Buckingham, reports that ESE "expanded too fast".

"Indeed, one can imagine running degree programmes at 17 (sic) different centres being an academic nightmare to organise or to maintain acceptable quality. They showed a lack of judgment not to foresee such chaos."

Buckingham will receive £100,000 for validating the courses and taking over the students currently enrolled. It will be paid about £600 for each new student enrolled each year.

The university will validate three undergraduates courses: in international business, international marketing and international business finance.

Mr Drury says in his report that Buckingham is unlikely to face any financial risk because "the financial strength of the business currently relies on the family, who clearly have some wealth and live with a certain style".

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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