BBC London's undercover investigation exposes bogus university
Monday 7 and Tuesday 8 January, BBC London News, BBC One, 6.30pm
BBC London has exposed an international education scam targeting foreign students in London.
The multi-million pound con has gone on virtually unchecked for seven years. It exploits lax Government policy and uses the UK's most prestigious universities as a front to sell unrecognised and worthless degrees.
Every year 40,000 foreign students come to London to study for a British degree. While many attend famous institutions with worldwide reputations, others are tempted into cheaper backstreet colleges by conmen where they end up paying thousands in fees. But the degrees they get are as dodgy as the professors who hand them out.
BBC London's investigation began with student Sounak Halder who was granted a visa to study for a UK degree at an East London college. In 2006 after seeing an advert for a UK recognised masters degree, Sounak from Kolkata took out a £5,000 loan to come to London to study. He made sure that the college was listed on a British Government website.
He says: "I was happy at that point of time. After that I'd gone to the British Council to check for the check, they also said yes, just check the DFES site. If the college's name is there it means it's fine ... go for that."
The college Sounak had chosen was linked to the Irish International University (IIU). It would be the one to award him the Masters degree. But concerns had already been raised in London over the IIU and others.
In fact BBC London discovered that the IIU was already listed on a secret Government blacklist of suspect universities back in 2005.
BBC London set up an undercover investigation with their bogus academic, Professor Beeg. Pretending to want to set up his own college in London, he met two men who run Irish International University, Professor Sandhu and Dr Varo.
Within two hours of meeting him, Dr Varo offered BBC's Professor Beeg a professorship. He said: "You must become attached to a university so we can put you under Irish International University and give you a professorship."
Varo stated that Irish International was bona fide. He said: "It is not bogus you know, or no existence or anything like that, that's not true."
But when BBC London went to the IIU address in Dublin, there was absolutely nothing there. No staff, no faculty, no students, nobody had even heard of a university on the premises.
Sean O'Foghlu, the Chief Executive for the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, said: "To use the word university in a title it needs approval from our department of education and science ... no such approval has been given by our department."
The Irish International University's degrees are backed by the Quality Assurance Commission UK (QAC UK) which Professor Sandhu points out is "an independent body that basically maintains the quality whether it's in Africa or the UK ... It's a private body."
But when BBC London arrived at the QAC's office in North London, they found it was a virtual office, just like Dublin.
A quick check at Companies House showed that the IIU's boss Professor Hardeep Singh Sandhu is also a co-director of the QAC UK LTD. He had created an accreditation body to accredit his own university.
Students are not the only people being duped. Leading businesswoman Mary Chapman, CEO of the Chartered Management Institute, attended Irish International's degree ceremony at Oxford University's Divinity School as a guest of honour.
She is captured on film collecting an honorary doctorate. Once the BBC informed her of their investigation, she returned the doctorate and severed all ties with Irish International.
Irish International's scam depends on its ability to hire out facilities in Oxford and Cambridge. This lends the outfit credibility, not to mention numerous photo opportunities which it uses to publicise itself to students around the world.
Since being contacted by BBC London, both Oxford and Cambridge have said that they will cease any business relationship with Irish International.
An Oxford spokesperson said: "Oxford University will not be renting its facilities to the Irish International University in the future. This is not an institution with which we wish to develop a relationship."
BBC London tracked down the Honorary Chancellor of the Irish International University, his Excellency Baron Knowth. It turns out he is no aristocrat; he is in fact Jeffrey Wooller, a chartered accountant from London.
He has been a prominent member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. He owns a £1.2million townhouse in Kensington as well as a flat in Monte Carlo, where he is a tax exile.
Mr Wooller fell for BBC London's fake business meeting and admitted that the IIU is not legit: "well it's not accredited, so it's not recognised", he states on film.
He went on to tell BBC London's actor that "there's a lot of convocations and they pay a lot of money to go to the convocations ... if you can mention Oxford or Cambridge then the whole world thinks that it must be a good university ... it's very misleading."
Indeed it is, especially as the only links the IIU has with Britain's best seats of learning is that they hire out space for its ceremonies and lectures.
Even when Wooller realised he had been rumbled he continued to admit to BBC London reporter Angela Saini that it is a dodgy operation: "Of course it's dodgy," he declares.
He said students are happy in their ignorance: "They are getting a degree, as long as they don't know, they're happy." But he is still not going to quit the IIU.
In an email to BBC London, Professor Hardeep Sandhu said that the university's accreditation body, QAC-UK Ltd, of which he was a director, was "no longer involved with the Irish International University ... The Oxbridge connection is a purely commercial association", and he denied misleading students over the links.
Finally Mr Sandhu told BBC London that the university will not renew its affiliations with any private colleges in London.
The Government promises that by 2009 all colleges will have to be accredited if they want to bring overseas students to the UK to learn. It is progress, but not enough to have saved the students who have been conned out of thousands of pounds for dodgy degrees.
See the full report on Monday 7 and Tuesday 8 January on BBC London News, BBC One, 6.30pm.