Universities in Central America are being induced to pay for awards without having to submit to any assessment procedures, a university rector warned a session of the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education in Paris last week. Dr Miguel Escala, Rector of the Instituto Tecnológico de Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, described how universities were receiving invitations to attend an event to receive an award - in exchange for US$5,000.
He suggested some universities were prepared to pay but outlined his response: "Thank you, but we do not accept any kind of award without pre-assessment of our quality."
Escala intervened in discussions about the continuing international problem of degree mills. Peter Okebukola, chair of the council of Osun State University in Nigeria, described the steps being taken by UNESCO and the US-based Council for Higher Education Accreditation to tackle degree mills.
His call for national legal frameworks to protect the terms such as 'university' and 'university college' from abuse by operators of degree mills was echoed by Sir John Daniel, president of the Commonwealth of Learning.
Daniel told the meeting that during June's Commonwealth Education Ministers conference in Kuala Lumpur, the existence of a degree mill operating out of the Seychelles came to light. Discussion with the education minister of the Seychelles revealed that the country's body of law did not have the power to restrict use of the terms for accredited institutions and he undertook to remedy the omission when he returned from the conference.
Other delegates raised concerns not just over the existence of degree mills but also over accreditation mills that allow bogus institutions to claim spurious authority.
But a proposal for UNESCO to publish a list of degree mills was rejected by Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic, chief of UNESCO's section for Reform, Innovation and Quality Assurance. A blacklist was not feasible, Uvalic-Trumbic said, urging use instead of the UNESCO Portal that carries information on recognised higher education institutions as part of its initiative on cross-border higher education.
The portal is at a pilot stage and so far 27 countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and Japan, have posted links to details of their recognised universities and programmes.
The session, which updated delegates on developments since adoption of the UNESCO-OECD guidelines on cross-border education, also examined the phenomenon of league tables and rankings.
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