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Degree mills bank on allure of UK names

British-sounding names and accents are still favourites among institutions that offer fake degrees, according to a former FBI investigator, writes Melanie Newman.

Allan Ezell, who ran the bureau's Operation Dipscam for nine years in the 1980s, said that degree mills were trading in the US and Canada on the British reputation for quality.

University Degree Program (UDP) was fined by US authorities in 2003. The business sold degrees through fake institutions, including "Shaftesbury University" and "University of Dunham".

Today, Redding University offers degrees based on "life experience" in "ten days or less", "Suffield University" takes two weeks, while "Ashwood University" can provide a degree in seven days.

Mr Ezell, who this week addressed a UK National Recognition Information Centre conference on combating fraudulent applications, recommended that Britain tighten its laws in line with US efforts to crack down on bogus universities.

It is illegal in this country to award a qualification that could be mistaken for a UK degree unless the awarding body is on the Department for Education and Skills' recognised list.

But there is nothing to stop an overseas institution operating as a "university" in the UK and offering overseas degrees.

"A phoney degree is a phoney degree. It shouldn't make a difference whether it's pretending to be a UK degree or not," Mr Ezell said.

In certain US states, such as New Jersey and Texas, it is illegal to use degrees from institutions that are not accredited by a federally recognised body.

Legislation passing through US Congress will mean that degrees used "for purposes of federal employment" will be recognised only if they come from institutions accredited by the US Department of Education.

The law will require the US Secretary of Education to set up a task force to study diploma mills and make recommendations on how to stamp them out.

It will also define as "deceptive" certain practices relating to degrees, diplomas and professional certificates.

The law may drive bogus institutions abroad, but they are unlikely to stop operating, Mr Ezell admitted.

Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, said: "The department ensures that the law protecting UK degrees is enforced by Trading Standards. While the whole issue of bogus degrees is taken seriously, the department cannot police entities whose origins, in most cases, are abroad."

The two Americans behind the UDP scam made $435 million (£220 million) in five years, operating out of Israel and Romania as well as the US. After the Federal Trade Commission investigation, the two were fined about US$170,000 and continued practising offshore.

Sweden's National Agency for Higher Education estimated that the number of fake universities had shot up from about 200 worldwide in 2000 to more than 800 in 2005.

Mr Ezell suggested that the DfES followed the example of the State of Oregon's Office of Degree Authorisation, which carries a list of approved diploma-awarding organisations, as well as listing US states that have low standards or poor enforcement.

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