American University of London sells study-free MBA
A so-called university sold an MBA degree for thousands of pounds with no academic work required, a BBC Newsnight investigation has revealed.
The American University of London (AUOL) awarded a fictitious person created by the programme a Master's in Business in exchange for a £4,500 fee.
AUOL has insisted it is "not a bogus university" and defended the robustness of the qualifications it offers.
Newsnight has found hundreds of senior executives listing AUOL qualifications.
The programme contacted some of them, but they all insisted that they had had to study for their degrees.
AUOL styles itself as a pioneer of distance learning, offering degrees and post-graduate qualifications in business, IT, law, education and liberal arts, humanities, and English to more than 100,000 students worldwide.
Its website claims that that all of their courses "have been designed to the most exacting standards, in accordance with the most stringent criteria, in order to provide outstanding education at an affordable price".
However, Newsnight found that getting the university to provide a qualification without any study at all was easy.
The programme drew up a one-page fake CV for a management consultant Peter Smith, known as Pete, living in South London, which included 15 years of made-up work experience and a fictitious undergraduate degree from a UK university.
The real Pete was actually a dog living in Battersea Dogs' Home.
Newsnight sent "Pete's" CV to AUOL, along with a completed application for the Master's in Business (MBA) and £50 application fee.
AUOL also requires applicants to provide photocopies of previous qualifications and a photograph of themselves. However, Newsnight was unable to provide either since the qualifications did not exist and the applicant was a dog.
No courses required
Despite these omissions, just four days after sending in the application, AUOL sent "Pete" an e-mail saying that his application for a degree based on previous experience had been successful and that once the university had received his £4,500 fee he would be registered as an MBA graduate within about two weeks.
When Newsnight's reporter telephoned to check whether "Pete" would be required to submit any work, a university representative said:
"No, no, apparently the APEL [Accreditation of Previous Experiential Learning] board awarded him the full degree immediately based on his qualification and his professional experience, so he doesn't have to do any courses."
We showed our written application to Jan Bamford at London Met University which runs properly accredited MBA courses. She was incredulous that a degree could be awarded to someone "with such limited work experience and such a poor application".
"I find it incredible that any organisation is awarding an MBA on what essentially amounts to the evidence that is on a piece of paper. That's appalling. Really appalling. And again it goes to the very heart of the fact the government needs to regulate this behaviour," she added.
In order to hand out a British degree an institution has to be recognised by Parliament. However, it is perfectly legal to give the impression that a university is run in the UK even when in reality it is incorporated overseas.
AUOL is one such place - seemingly based in London, but actually incorporated in St Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean, as they state on their website.
Despite its name, AUOL does not seem to have any physical presence in London. Newsnight found that the university's phone number is a Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, area code and that the bank that university fees are paid to is in Beaconsfield.
According to public records, including the electoral roll, Professor Michael Nimier, who was the founder of AUOL, and Sonia Grimes, who is the registrar, live in the town.
On its website, AUOL boasts some well qualified supervisors and says that "the university's academic staff are highly qualified and experienced". But when we contacted five Western academics on its list, all said they had never worked there and never agreed for their name to be used.
George Gollin, an American academic with expertise in unaccredited education, told Newsnight that AUOL "did not stand up to scrutiny".
"It doesn't have authority to award degrees. They are not degrees. They are pieces of paper and I'm guessing they are not able to sell very many degrees into countries where English is the first language."
The university says most of its graduates study at independent colleges in countries overseas. Those affiliates are apparently independent with their own staff subject to their own local laws. AUOL simply takes a fee to help set the curricula and issue graduation certificates in its own name.
On professional social networking sites Newsnight found hundreds of senior executives who said they had qualifications from AUOL.
The programme spoke to a number of them, all of whom insisted that they did have to submit work to get their degrees.
Dr Robert Oakes, a psychologist from Birmingham, who gives expert testimony in court cases, was awarded a PhD just five months after first submitting work.
However, he told the programme that he had spent 18 months on his own background research prior to this and he was already a registered psychologist based on a previous degree.
Dr Oakes said he believed AUOL was properly accredited, but that he has now taken the qualification off his CV.
Dr Rita Bowser, a senior nuclear industry executive who was in charge of selling a new generation of reactors in the UK, was awarded a doctorate in business after submitting what she described as "significant amounts of coursework".
Her employer, Westinghouse, said she is well qualified for her job based on 30 years of experience and two previous degrees including a master's from the respected Georgia Tech.
Since AUOL is not properly accredited it is not possible to verify how much work they did, nor what standard was required.
The university has claimed to be recognised by three different American institutions, but these institutions are themselves unofficial and unrecognised.
The university is listed as "bogus" by the agency that values degrees for the Italian government and it has been blacklisted in five US states, including Texas where it is illegal to use any of its qualifications to get a job.
In a statement AUOL told Newsnight: "We are not a bogus university… and have always been upfront about our status. We have not applied for accreditation with any American, British or other official agency. Many graduates go on to higher education or hold important positions on the strength of our degrees."
The university added that most of its study modules are on a par with those used by top distance learning universities and that it only issues degrees based on work experience in exceptional circumstances.