“Neither Irish, nor a university” – Some observations on the Irish International Univ
Quote:"Neither Irish, nor a university” – Some observations on the Irish International University controversy

by John Kersey

This week, the BBC has been broadcasting an investigative feature[1] on the Irish International University that has been revealing to say the least. The candour with which its honorary chancellor, Professor Jeff Wooller, now a tax exile in Monte Carlo, openly admitted that the university was “dodgy” was refreshing, if somewhat worrying.

The BBC is right to highlight the poor quality and misleading practices that are characteristic of some "educational" institutions. In the case of IIU, its claim of independent “accreditation” was shown to be by a body of its own creation, while its governing council, by the admission of its honorary chancellor, did not exist. Nor did the claimed campus in Ireland, which was in fact a mailbox.

There has been extensive negative publicity concerning IIU on the Internet for several years now, particularly emanating from Malaysia, where the university has been active. In the UK, IIU has operated through making arrangements with private residential colleges which have then offered courses that lead to IIU degrees. It is not an offence to offer overseas degrees in the UK provided it is made clear that they are not from a UK institution, and it is not suggested anywhere in the BBC’s report that IIU has been acting illegally.

It is, however, a little surprising that in its claimed three months of investigative reporting, the BBC failed to dig up that Wooller has been in this sort of trouble before, back in 1995 or so. According to information supplied by the Institute of Chartered Accountants (of which he is a member), “Mr Wooller accepted a Consent Order on a complaint that in a Magistrates Court he pleaded guilty to two offences under Section 214(1) of the Education Reform Act 1988 for which he was reprimanded, fined £1,000 and ordered to pay costs of £250.[2]”

IIU and Ireland
IIU and its formerly associated institution the Irish University Business School have been around for ten years or so in one form or another. In Ireland, IIU has been registered as a company since 2000 under the name Institiud Idirnaiseuinta na h’Eireann den Aontas Eorpach Teoranta. This is in accordance with the Universities Act 1997, which regulates the use of the word “university” in company names. The reason for this regulation is that in common law, such as pertains in Ireland, the use of the word “university” is de facto assumed to carry with it the assumption of university status and the right to undertake university work, except where aspects of that work are specifically proscribed by law.

However, Irish legislation does not presently regulate the conferring of degrees by private institutions, and several private degree-awarding institutions, including Warnborough College Ireland, operate on the basis of Irish registration.

Neither did Ireland prevent the Institiud Idirnaiseuinta na h’Eireann from obtaining official registration of “Irish International University” as its business name from the Irish government authorities in 2000. As a result, when IIU claims that its use of the title university is sanctioned by the Irish government, it is quite correct. Documentation confirming this is readily available from the official online register of business names from the Companies Registration Office, which lists Irish International University as business name number 182631[3].

IIU is certainly no part of the Irish public education system, but the Irish government is misleading at best when it says that it has failed to sanction its use of the university title. Whatever problems IIU has caused, a large part of the responsibility for them must lie squarely at the feet of the Irish government for permitting it to exist in the first place. Only a retrospective and doubtless complex legislative decision on its part would now be able to effect a remedy to that situation.

A bogus university
In any case, it is one thing to be a university in law, and another to be one in terms of achievement. On the basis of the above information and much else that is known about this institution, IIU fails the latter test comprehensively.

Like some of its commercially-focussed American counterparts, IIU has no real academic life to it; it produces no scholarly output, undertakes no philanthropic activity, engenders no real benefit to society. Where it could, with effort and commitment, provide a determined alternative to the mainstream, it has been content to be merely a pallid and perhaps deceptive imitation of it, justifying the BBC’s “bogus” description.

Doubtless, students do some work for their degrees at IIU; whatever the standard of that work, it is not suggested that IIU is an outright diploma mill or degree-selling operation. And given the lamentable standards of some of the less-celebrated public universities in the UK, it is unwise at best for the public sector to start crowing about how great British standards of university education are.

Why IIU? Why now?
But the shallow façade created by IIU is in many respects an easy target for the BBC, and it is important that we should look beyond the entertainment provided by its discomfiture towards the deeper reasons why it should be in the news now, and indeed given prime prominence by BBC London – the state broadcaster – when other major channels and newspapers did not even trouble to report the story. The whiff of government propaganda, as one might anticipate, is not far away, and its telltale sign is that the obscure institution in question is not being accused of having done anything illegal, but instead is being heaped with an equivalent level of moral opprobrium by the political class.

Anatomy of an agenda
Today on both sides of the Atlantic there has developed a particular lobby group comprised of low-grade universities that are either owned by the state or under the direct control of accreditation agencies that are in turn controlled by the state.

The pattern goes something like this. The weaker the profile of a university is, the harder it finds it to attract students. Oxford has no problems in that regard. The former Peckham Polytechnic, on the other hand, cannot pick and choose with such ease, and it is likely that a high proportion of its intake will be from overseas, which of course carries higher fees and potentially a less demanding constituency which is seeking the supposed prestige of a British degree and does not much care which institution it is from.

As the university declines in standing, so it becomes more and more dependent on the state to allocate it funding and to assign those students for whom it would not have been a first choice. Indeed, most of these students would not be at university at all were it not subsidised by the state, which continues to advocate mass university education not for academic or humanitarian reasons, but because it reduces crime and unemployment.

The chief – indeed the only - strength of the low-grade state institution becomes ultimately that it is part of the state machinery and that its degrees are “degrees of the state”. It is these institutions that we hear pushing the line that “all state degrees are equal in standing” in the face of a disbelieving public. It is also these institutions whose graduates are frequently cited by employers as lacking basic skills and contributing to the “dumbing down” of university degrees.

It is these institutions who have most to gain from supporting both the state and its regulatory procedures that purport to assess quality. In the UK, it is extremely difficult to find out any useful information whatsoever from university regulatory bodies that will help you determine whether one university is actually better than another. The regulators may talk a great deal about quality and produce voluminous paperwork and statistical reports to justify their drain on the public purse. But actually, their purpose is directed inward, not outward. They are not there to tell the public which universities represent value for money and which are poor investments. They are there to protect and bolster the weaker institutions from market forces by defending and ring-fencing the state system itself.

Ironically, the BBC and the political class themselves are often persuaded to see themselves as defenders of "the university system", doubtless conceiving of that system in terms of the halcyon days of the 1970s when many of them were students. They ignore the fact that the excellence of those institutions which were then-active is today being actively impeded and dragged down to the lowest common denominator. The factors responsible are the substantial tail-end created by the post-1992 expansion of the university sector, and the consistent effort to get more and more students into higher education, whatever their aptitude for university life.

Inevitably the result is that standards fall and the best universities suffer because of the effort - financial, academic, propagandistic - now needed to prop up the worst.

The private sector as enemy

Why should such ring-fencing be needed? In particular, because there is increasing disquiet in those circles concerning competition from the private sector. The BBC’s fuss about IIU is cover, in the same report, for higher education minister Bill Rammell to talk about new legislation that will introduce mandatory state-approved accreditation for private colleges, scheduled to come in by 2009. A condition of obtaining this accreditation is that these colleges can no longer offer courses that lead to degrees conferred by non-state-approved institutions to overseas students seeking visas. Naturally, IIU is among the sans culottes.

The private college sector remains the hidden success story of British tertiary education, and it is a sector – unlike the mainstream of higher education – that is dominated by British entrepreneurs who are largely black or Asian in ethnicity. Dozens of institutions – the BBC reported over 60 in East London alone – operate without state subsidy and generate considerable profits through the supply of education on the open, unregulated market. Their customers are most usually overseas students who come to Britain seeking a year or more of productive study and cultural experience, aware that the “British brand” is a powerful marketing tool when they return home. They may be studying in small, undistinguished-looking premises over shopfronts and in unfashionable parts of town, but in contrast to the state universities, they can gain access to private education for considerably less money and often with fewer academic barriers to entry.

The demand areas for such institutions remain those that are most directly vocational, particularly business and information technology. Degree qualifications (especially the MBA) are highly valued, and some colleges partner with British universities to offer their awards. The smaller colleges, however, generally find that the fees demanded by the British institutions to franchise their degree programmes are unsustainable, and also that the British curriculums on offer are better suited to grand campuses and taxpayer-funded facilities than to students who are looking for a direct route to the assessment of their ability and to a pared-down style of study. Often those students are being taught by tutors who are earning little more than the minimum wage, without any of the security of tenure that their cosseted public sector counterparts enjoy. This may be education on a shoestring, but it is education nonetheless, and it serves the needs of many who experience it.

Into this situation have come overseas institutions such as IIU, and a myriad other counterparts, mostly from the United States, which fill the gap by providing degree franchises at an affordable price, thus meeting market demand. Some of these institutions are decent enough, while others are dreadful. None is Harvard, but Harvard is not what this market is looking for. These institutions, by contrast, are breaking a state monopoly and creating price competition. That is why the likes of Bill Rammell have seen them as a problem.

The growth and increasing demand fuelling a vibrant private sector in tertiary education has sent up a warning signal to the low-grade state institutions. Since overseas students are such a big part of their operation and viability, the prospect of losing them to a private sector alternative fills them with fear and foreboding.

What really disquiets them, however, is the prospect that the choice between public and private is not just one that will affect the poorest overseas students – those who would probably not be able to afford state fees in the first place – but that it will come to embrace their target market of the more affluent. Heaven forbid, indeed, that their target market should decide that the private sector offers better value for money and a solution that meets its needs with equal effectiveness. In a developing country, where higher education is the preserve of the elite, even a sub-standard degree from IIU starts to look like a good deal.

The hidden machinery at work
What to do? Well, for the public sector and for government, the answer is simple. The success story of the private sector must be eliminated, and there are two ways in which this will be effected.

Firstly, new legislation will make it all but impossible for most of the private colleges to operate without slashing their profits as they seek new arrangements with British universities. That will effectively shift the odds back in favour of the public sector monopoly. Many of the private colleges will probably go out of business altogether, especially if they do not have the facilities available to meet the expectations of their British university partners.

Secondly, in the process of introducing the new legislation, it would be mightily useful to discredit private sector degree providers as much as possible so as to deter students from seeing them as a viable alternative. Why not find a particularly indifferent institution to be held up as an example? IIU certainly seems to tick all the boxes.

Thirdly, why stop at the private degree providers? Get rid of, or reduce, the private college market itself, and its customers will have no choice but to turn to the state.

While we’re about all that, why not also use our convenient scapegoat to reinforce that oldest myth of all – that only the public sector can be trusted to deliver higher education, and if the private sector barbarians are let in the gates, there will be nothing left but tax exiles sunning themselves in Monaco - and dodgy degrees a-plenty.

The moral agenda reinforced by the personal
Of course, in all these cases, there must also be victims. Bring them forth – those who spent their life savings on courses that they now believe (or have been told by the state propaganda machine) are worthless. The correct approach of caveat emptor is rejected in favour of that of presuming that consumers are merely gullible victims and that choice in the free market is too demanding for their meagre intellects. And the question of "worthless" is moot when graduates of the vaunted state system find themselves asking whether you'd like fries with that.

And those who fear being caught up in the backwash of negative publicity – prominent businesspeople with remarkably little guile and who would hardly be where they were without a high degree of nous - now line up to declaim that they were no more than unwary dupes “hoodwinked” into involvement with the establishment concerned. Did someone say “show trial”?

Best of all, from the media’s point of view, is where people with qualifications that are not necessarily bogus in themselves, but come from institutions which have hit the media spotlight for the wrong reasons, are “discovered” being employed in positions of responsibility. There’s nothing quite like a witch-hunt and the spectacle of someone being prominently fired pour encourager les autres. It’s all a modern morality tale – only with that particularly distorted and blinkered brand of morality that doctrinaire state socialists seem to specialise in these days.

Visa smokescreen
Another line of fire is provided by the issue of illegal immigration and some private colleges that are fronts or scams to assist students to obtain visas deceptively. Yet, with much fanfare only a few years ago, the government introduced a Register that was at the time claimed to be able to distinguish bona fide colleges from the makeweights. David Willetts, opposition spokesman on universities, raises a pertinent question when he asks “It begs the question of how they got on to the list in the first place and suggests the government’s process for accrediting them is not up to scratch.[4]”

Yet, while this is true, the answer is not to ban the unregulated private sector outright, as some lobby groups are arguing, nor is it to introduce yet more accreditation schemes to replace the existing one that has failed so abjectly. The answer instead lies in much deeper and more politically difficult questions about the extent to which illegal immigrants are eligible for welfare benefits and are able to work in the UK without being detected and sent back to their countries of origin. Ultimately, the visa issue and the colleges issue are not as connected as the government would wish us to believe. Smokescreen on dodgy colleges is a great deal easier to produce, however, than a coherent policy on illegal immigration, an area where the government has shuffled its feet for the past ten years.

Treating the consumer as ignorant dupe helps the agenda along
Never mind that 30 seconds on Google tells you most of what you would want to know about any higher education institution in the world, private or not – and the rule is always rightly caveat emptor, even with the most prestigious of hallowed halls.

Never mind that people can and do make ill-informed and ill-judged decisions about how to spend their money every day without it being the business of the state to become their personal financial advisor.

Never mind that for every one complainant there may be several hundred satisfied customers.

As ever, whenever the state claims to act on the grounds of consumer protection, it does not take much investigation to find its real motivation in terms of the coercive reinforcement of a state monopoly.

The likes of IIU exist for good reason
It doesn’t matter if IIU and a dozen institutions like it turn out to be the dunces of the private sector education world. There’s a reason why they exist, and it’s called market forces. The BBC investigation will not be the end of IIU, and it may even – as so often in similar cases – find that the negative attention perversely results in increased demand for its product as its profile is raised.

Even were IIU to close, there are many similar outfits out there ready and willing to take its place. And, truth be told, the best of them are meeting a standard equal or superior to their state counterparts. In a comment in The Times Online[5], someone signing off as “Jeff Wooller, Monte Carlo, Monaco”, said that “I will continue to work with [IIU] to try to get full accreditation so that everyone will then be happy.” With the state of higher education today, it would not be a great surprise if he were successful in that aim. The main criteria to achieve accreditation, after all, are the possession of money, physical facilities and a willingness to toe the political line of the lobbyists. Accreditation, at least in its US format which seems to be being rapidly imported to the UK, doesn’t actually examine quality in terms of outputs at all.

Free the market – eliminate the problem
So the answer to Bill Rammell is as follows: if you want to see an end to the IIUs of this world, or at least their relegation to their proper place at the bottom of the educational food chain, there’s an easy solution. Simply stop distorting the market through reinforcing a massive and aggressive public sector monopoly on higher education and providing it at extensively subsidised rates as if three years of study at the taxpayer’s expense were some kind of automatic right for today’s youth, regardless of their aptitude for university study. In short, stop providing a mass one-size-fits-all system and start thinking smart and thinking towards individualised education solutions.

If a free market is left to develop in higher education, the good and bad will be obvious for what they are, and the good will survive at the expense of the bad, which will fail and close. Fair competition is good for innovation and development, it’s good for institutions and it’s good for the public. Higher education needs to abandon the security of the ivory tower and realise that the free market is ultimately the best and most moral way to secure its future.

The private sector in higher education is currently squeezed into the small area that the state monopoly allows it to occupy – essentially a combination of niche providers and low-level outfits such as IIU. Take away the squeeze provided by the monopoly and the private sector will expand to take over the areas presently denied to it, including those where high quality is demanded.

Certainly, these changes will be a painful process. Those protected by the comforts of tenure at third-rate state establishments will likely find their positions evaporating. Courses which exist for no more reason than to meet the need created by the state’s relentless drive to a system of mass higher education will become extinct. Universities will need not only to link up with employers in their communities but to respond directly to what they want them to provide, even when that means breaking the academic mould. Institutions will specialise instead of remaining generalist, and many niche institutions will spring up. Many young people who would otherwise go to university will instead go out to work and will want to study part-time or by distance learning, making the campus less and less relevant. And you can take it for granted that the education unions will be up in arms.

Yet this is a battle that needs to be fought and now is the time to fight it. Higher education is changing dramatically, largely because Internet-based distance education has enabled the private sector to enter and compete in a global marketplace where even the most determined ring-fencing and rhetoric cannot protect the public sector indefinitely. Year by year, the state powerbase becomes more tenuous and less easy to justify, as more and more students find that a sensible, well-informed choice within the private sector can work well for them. It is no longer a question of if, but of when the state finally cedes its power to the private sector.

It is time to bite the bullet, loosen the regulatory chains and let the market determine the results. But I fear Mr Rammell and his comrades lack the stomach for that fight.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/arti...ture.shtml
[2] Quoted at http://iam.subhumour.us/?p=1707
[3] See the searchable databases at www.cro.ie
[4] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7177033.stm
[5] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_an...142514.ece
Apparently George Brown, Peter French and their newfound pal George Gollin (George Dana Gollin, George Gollinsky, George D. Gollin, Gollum) have set their sights on the dreadful IIU. I wonder if their efforts will be collaborative? Does this mean that George Brown and Peter are now members of Team Gollin? Does George Brown, by virtue of his new PhD, hold a higher position on the team or does the G-man insist that everyone come in on the entry level until they prove their worth?

Perhaps Gollin will use Brown and French to spearhead his overseas investigations? Our Australian academic friends have always had a bit of an independent streak. Will they keep it or will they just become the newest shills for the education cartel?

DD thread on IIU
Little Arminius Wrote:Apparently George Brown, Peter French and their newfound pal George Gollin (George Dana Gollin, George Gollinsky, George D. Gollin, Gollum) have set their sights on the dreadful IIU. I wonder if their efforts will be collaborative? Does this mean that George Brown and Peter are now members of Team Gollin? Does George Brown, by virtue of his new PhD, hold a higher position on the team or does the G-man insist that everyone come in on the entry level until they prove their worth?

Perhaps Gollin will use Brown and French to spearhead his overseas investigations? Our Australian academic friends have always had a bit of an independent streak. Will they keep it or will they just become the newest shills for the education cartel?

DD thread on IIU

Well, George Brown is now the ODA of AU according to Anal Al, this despite his now defunct hotel and hospitality diploma mill that the AU authority forced him to shut down. Then good ole Peter French who spent decades trying to prove his Summit Univesity of Louisiana Ph.D. was legitimate.

George Gollin (George D. Gollin, George Dana Gollin) could not have lined himself up with better people.

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