This article is from Al Fanar Media, an online publication that covers higher education in the Arab world. It is presented here under an agreement with The Chronicle.
A global network of fraudulent online universities is using high-pressure sales tactics and phony scholarships to extract money from students who end up with worthless degrees.
Graduate schools and potential employers who check degrees would not accept qualifications from the institutions in this network, leaving any graduates from the institutions unable to move on in their professional or academic careers.
An expert presented with the details of the network saw plenty of room for suspicion. “I see the commonalities and duplication of material across their websites and I have to assume they’re all fake,” said George Gollin, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Gollin tracks down diploma mills—pretend universities that issue worthless degrees—and exposes them. One investigation he participated in resulted in the owners of a diploma mill serving jail time.
The universities in the network, which typically say they are based in the United States, actively encourage students from the Arab world to enroll by offering what appear to be generous scholarships after just a few minutes of exchanging instant messages online. But that financial aid comes with a hook—the students are supposed to pay the rest of the fees immediately.
Some of the students who fall prey to these tactics don’t realize their degrees are worthless until after receiving them. Studying at the universities is a lonely experience—students at one of the schools in the network said they had no contact with professors at all.
At least some of the universities in the network appear to be entirely fraudulent although they try to give the appearance of quality by citing an accreditation organization that is actually part of their network. (See accompanying article, “Faking Quality Control for Universities.”)
Accreditation, a practice more common in Europe and North America, audits the quality of universities to ensure students are getting a proper standard of education. Several different associations do this and some of them also accredit universities in the Arab world.
But academics listed as working for the accreditation organization in the fraudulent network said they had no idea they were named as consultants until contacted by a reporter for an interview.
An International Network
The discovery of the elaborate network unfolded over several weeks.
The founder of the Abu Dhabi based Edu Alliance education consulting company, Dean Hoke, came across a press release outlining efforts to “enhance the higher education standards” in the Arab world by an organization called the “Middle East Office of Academic Regulation & Examination.”
That name didn’t sit right with Hoke, so he explored the organization’s website. A live-chat pop up screen appeared, and he typed into it.
The online representative from the organization asked for Hoke’s credit card details in order to approve a hefty scholarship. The idea of an accreditation organization, which operates at an institutional level, offering financial aid to individuals seemed wrong to Hoke.
The organization said it acted on the authority of the “Gulf Ministry of Higher Education.” But a government official in the region said no such organization exists.
“This is just absolute rubbish,” says Badr Aboul-Ela, the director of the Commission for Academic Accreditation at the Ministry of Education in the United Arab Emirates. “There is no single ministry for the entire Gulf region.”
When a reporter called the Middle East Office of Academic Regulation & Examination, the operator identified himself as a staffer in an institution called MUST University. That comment seems to have been a slip up.
MUST University says on its website that it is the "world’s largest university" with a presence in more than 180 countries.
Scholarships Are the Bait
MUST University stopped answering a journalist’s phone calls, possibly as a result of using caller ID. But reporters posing as prospective Arab and Western students during multiple live chat sessions were able to secure offers of financial aid from MUST in less than 15 minutes.
The first offer included a reduced enrollment fee of $199 down from $499 and a scholarship of 50 percent if the remainder of the fees were paid on an installment plan. Alternatively, a larger scholarship of 75 percent was proposed if all remaining fees were paid upfront. The scholarships came with time limits. “It is only for today for immediate admissions,” wrote a person at MUST University who identified himself as Jack Ayden. For a bachelor’s degree, the 75 percent scholarship option would have meant an immediate payment of $3,800.
Jack Ayden also works for at least two other online schools in the network, McMillan University and Presley University, people approaching the institutions as students found.
MUST only offers distance-learning degrees, but lists a San Francisco address on its website. The Better Business Bureau, a nonprofit organization that monitors marketplace fraud in the United States and Canada, isn’t sure that MUST has a U.S. office and has heard multiple grievances about the institution.
“We’ve sent mail to test the address and it’s been returned undeliverable,” says Lori Wilson, the president of the Better Business Bureau in the San Francisco area.
Wilson’s office has received 10 complaints from MUST students. Fifty-year-old Scott Wise from North Carolina is one of them. He enrolled over the phone for a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2010 at what he was told was a discounted price. The listed price on MUST’s website is $14,400. He estimates the degree cost him about $7,500, but he says his employer paid for most of it.
Wise said his education consisted of automated tests that spit back his score as soon as he finished them. He didn’t speak or interact with any of the 2,500 professors that MUST’s website says are on its payroll. Two other students also said they were never in contact with teachers.
A 39-year-old man called Rick Shadrick from Tennessee is listed as a faculty member on MUST’s website, which he confirmed in an interview. He says he is in constant contact with his students through an online platform. “You can talk and chat with them,” he says, “it’s a very personal way of interacting with students.”
A Tennesee sheriff’s office said they have received various complaints from the public about Shadrick impersonating a police officer and other authority figures, though he isn’t officially under investigation as he has since left their jurisdiction.
Wise finished his degree in eight months by working nights after work and by putting in eight-hour days on the weekend. In the United States, a bachelor’s degree typically takes four years to earn. Wise says it wasn’t until the end of the course that he realized his degree had little, if any, value.
When he completed his study, the university charged an additional $500 to his credit card without his approval. He fought for a refund with no success.
MUST then sent him a diploma without his full name. When he spoke with MUST about a replacement he was told correcting the error would cost an additional $1,300. The institution later lowered its price to $800. “I told them ‘You must think I’m crazy if I’m going to give you anymore money,’” he said.
His experience with MUST wasn’t unique.
Sixty-year-old Vickie San Juan from the state of Washington also had unauthorized charges to her credit card after she finished her online diploma in “supply chain management,” which she was told would cost her just $1,650 with a $400 down payment. “One thousand dollars here and there kept coming out of my account,” she says. “I called to complain and they reversed the charges a couple of times only to apply them again. Eventually I had to cancel the card.”
When she received her degree from MUST University, they called to tell her she needed a different diploma than the one they had sent. Just like Wise, she was told she’d have to pay for their mistake. “They said I needed to spend another $1,600 or something to get a properly accredited degree.” A third ex-student, 31-year-old Erica Stuchell from Ohio, had a similar experience. (See accompanying article, “How to Avoid Getting Cheated by Phony Scholarships.”)
MUST claims to be accredited by the International Accreditation Organization, but Wilson, of the Better Business Bureau, doubts the authenticity of this group.
The accreditation organization, MUST University, and the Middle East Office of Academic Regulation and Accreditation all have similar website designs, 24-hour online live chats, and the same hold music on their telephone lines.
The IAO lists the universities it declares to have certified. Included on the list are McMillan University and Hurst University. Both these universities also use the same distinct hold music. (A few institutions certified by IAO appear to be ones that are striving to provide an education and want international recognition.)
A representative from McMillan made an additional claim in a conversation to be accredited by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, in the United States.
Tim Willard, a spokesperson for the council, said via email that the organization does not accredit universities, but evaluates the organizations that do. The council does not recognize the IAO.
The IAO lists a large number of academic experts as part of its evaluation commission. But at least two of the people listed as part of the IAO’s evaluation commission said they had no connection with the organization. Diego Fernando Steinaker is listed as being responsible for assuring quality standards in Argentina.
He says he’s never once evaluated a university for the IAO. “I’ve never heard of this organization before. I don’t even work in Argentina anymore,” says Steinaker, now a plant biologist at the University of Regina, in Canada, when reached by phone.
Robin Farquhar, who has served as the president of the University of Winnipeg and Carleton University, is listed as the organization’s Canada representative, but he also says he has had no involvement with the organization.
The organization contacted him a number of years ago and asked him to join their evaluation commission. He consulted with colleagues who work in accreditation, and says he heard a lot of negative comments.
He declined the invitation, yet the organization still uses his name and photo on their website. He has requested at least twice to have his information removed. “They have never asked me to evaluate an application,” he says. “It’s pretty damn fraudulent.”
They’re All Linked
A reporter called Hurst University, which is ostensibly accredited by the IAO, and asked to speak with someone about accreditation. After a few minutes of the familiar hold music, he was put through to a man who called himself “Dr. Austin Rhodes” and who said he was “head of accreditation.” He wouldn’t answer questions, but told the reporter to call back later.
Calls to the IAO, McMillan University, and Presley University revealed the same hold music and the presence of a “Dr. Austin Rhodes” who didn’t want to take phone calls or answer questions.
Similar calls found that Jack Ayden, who offered a hefty scholarship to enroll at MUST University, also worked at McMillan University and Presley University.
The degrees obtained by duped students such as Scott Wise aren’t, unfortunately for the students, worth much. For example, a legitimate graduate school wouldn’t accept an unaccredited bachelor’s degree for a student’s application to study for a master’s degree. That didn’t stop Hurst University from claiming the opposite.
An Al-Fanar Media editor posed as an 18-year-old Egyptian student called Mona Abboud who was interested in a bachelor’s degree in political science. Mona told the online representative of Hurst, who identified himself as Dr. Andy Moore, that she wanted to go on to study for a master’s degree in London. She asked whether the degree was properly accredited to allow her to do this. “Yes indeed!” he replied. Moore also inadvertently sent a link explaining the accreditation of a different school called Delward University. Another reporter was able to secure offers for online medical and nursing degrees at some of the universities in the network.
George Gollin, the professor at the University of Illinois, says the degree mill industry often includes both fake accrediting bodies and universities. The first step towards shutting such organizations down requires finding out where in the world they’re located and what enforcement agencies have jurisdiction, he said.
Software that traces where emails are read indicated that a person affiliated with the International Accreditation Organization was reading the message in Karachi, Pakistan. The photo of a LinkedIn profile of the same person turned out to be a stock image. Software used on the website of one of the universities accredited by the organization detects where students are accessing the site and makes “special offers” to students customized to their location, be it Bahrain or Jordan.
Diploma mills are everywhere. And, then, when someone tries to make them answer for their actions, they are nowhere.
Kathryn Doyle, Courtney Gilfillian, Nadia Montasser and Rasha Faek contributed to this story.