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Faking Quality Control for Universities

A phony quality control agency helps universities it’s affiliated with to extract money from students for degrees with little or no value. But it also has a second business on the side.

The second business of the International Accreditation Organization, as it calls itself, is to give the veneer of respectability to independently run institutions that are also “diploma mills,” cranking out degrees that won’t advance students’ careers.  The business is global—its “accredited” institutions are listed around the world. (See accompanying story, “A Web of “Diploma Mills” Preys on Arab And Western Students Alike”)

A few of the institutions, to be fair, are apparently striving to provide a genuine education, and appear to have been duped into thinking they were getting real international recognition.

Others are diploma mills, and reporters frequently found they had nonexistent physical addresses and no local licensing.

In Amman, Jordan, a reporter found that the address listed by the Royal University for Medical Sciences, which is accredited by the IAO, is not a real address.  The institution changed its name to “Medical Private University” after not meeting Jordan’s licensing requirements—but the university no longer exists.

At least one genuine Arab university has fallen for the IAO’s offer of international recognition.

Al-Quds Open University is an online university with a physical campus, which is recognized by the Palestinian Authority. Last May the university received an accreditation certificate from the IAO. Yousef Sabah, the director of the quality department at the university, said he found the IAO on social media and hoped its recognition would give his institution more credibility. “We wanted to show our commitment to the international standards and to gain the confidence of local, regional and international audiences,” he said.

The office of York University, in Honolulu, is in this building. Image Credit: Joseph Bennington-Castro

A discount the accreditation organization’s officials offered also had some appeal. “They said they had a special offer for Palestinian institutions,” Sabah said.

Thousands of miles away, in Honolulu, Hawaii, a reporter took a look at another institution certified by the IAO. The reporter went to the address listed online by “York University,” which is not connected to the Canadian university by the same name or to the University of York in the United Kingdom. The institution consists of a modest office the size of a small bedroom in a nondescript office building. A woman there, Richelle Kim, who also runs a photo booth rental company on the island, said the university had “reasonable prices.”

The website of York University is more forthcoming than others on IAO’s list. York clearly states that it is not accredited by any agency recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education, which means its students will not be eligible for federal financial aid.

Two universities in India paid $1,000 for IAO approval. The vice chancellor of Dr. K.N. Modi University said IAO contacted the university in 2012. “They have an impressive name, but frankly I don’t know what value they add,” says Devendra Pathak.

The head of quality assurance at another Indian institution, Pandit Ravishankar Shukla University, Atanu Kumar Pati, said IAO officials offered to accredit that institution in 2013. The university had not yet been approved by the Indian National Assessment and Accreditation Council at the time and welcomed the idea of a dry run, said Pati. After the university officials agreed to the proposal, two men came to inspect the campus for two days. “They had a checklist of 50 points that included everything from infrastructure to checking all of our documents,” says Pati.

The ease with which IAO accreditation was awarded is a red flag, says Richard Pokrass, the communications director of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which accredits some U.S. universities as well as the American University of Beirut, the American University of Cairo, and Zayed University.

Pokrass’ organization takes about five years to accredit an institution. The cost is far in excess of $1,000, he says, usually falling somewhere between $10,000 and $30,000 or more.

In India, Pathak seemed unaware that the IAO is not a legitimate accreditation organization. “They are based in Houston and are a very large body,” he says.

But a reporter who attempted to visit the Houston office once listed by IAO found that the street numbers once claimed as an address by IAO don’t go that high.

Middle States, like other full-fledged accreditors, looks at a university’s strategic planning, whether it seeks to improve teaching, and whether it offers additional services like counseling and career advice. The accreditors also look at the institution’s financial situation. “We don’t want to accredit a school that’s on such shaky ground that it’s likely to shut down and leave students stranded,” says Pokrass.

To do that sort of extensive review in two days makes the IAO seem very suspicious to him. “That’s about as phony as you can possibly get,” he said.

Joseph Bennington-Castro, Mandakini Gahlot, Rasha Faek, Thaer Thabet and Tavia Lee-Goldstein contributed to this article.


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