With the continued growth in demand for quality higher education options - whether in the public university or private higher education sector - there has also been an increase in bogus colleges exploiting the complexities of the regulatory environment for own gain, an education expert warns.
“As matriculants start considering their options for 2018 and applying for higher education, parents, guardians and prospective students should ensure they don’t fall prey to these unscrupulous operators,” says Dr Felicity Coughlan, Director of The Independent Institute of Education, SA’s largest and most accredited private higher education institution.
She says that bogus colleges have become increasingly sophisticated in their methodology, and that fraudsters are making the most of the fact that some of the language related to legitimate private higher education is hard to understand, which means that they are able to present an offer that appears legitimate.
“South Africans know that they should be wary of bogus colleges and from time to time there are media reports about campaigns of the Department of Higher Education and Training visiting the premises of such colleges and laying charges with the police,” she says.
“Unfortunately, these colleges exploit a deep aspirational desire of young people to access quality education so that they can create a better life for themselves. Perhaps because of the fundamental nature of that desire, potential students often fall prey to the scams.”
As with any other type of scam, the best scams are always those that have a veneer of respectability and accurate information – the best lies always contain a grain of truth. And education scams are regrettably able to deceive precisely because the language around the rules – ironically meant to protect the general public - is so unclear, Coughlan says.
“An example is the fact that private higher education institutions may not call themselves private universities, even though they are subject to exactly the same oversight as public universities.
“Because the language describing what legitimate private higher education providers do and what they are is so tortuous, bogus providers can present themselves much more clearly, as they continue to use the terms the public understand - such as university - with impunity.”
The problem is exacerbated because the power of the Department of Higher Education to actually stop the illegal provision is quite limited, particularly when providers are not registered and the Department has to rely on fraud charges being laid with the police.
“The process from that charge being laid to successful prosecution is a long and difficult one and we are not aware of many successful prosecutions. There is therefore very little deterrent value. Several providers simply stop operating in one form when challenged and reappear in another,” Coughlan says.
She says the only remedy – until a more efficient deterrent is realised to stop the proliferation of bogus colleges – is to continue driving a public awareness campaign to limit the massive damage suffered by those affected by these scams.
“Unfortunately, legitimate private higher education providers trying to educate the public come up against all the rules about what they are not allowed to say. For instance while all degrees are at the same level and therefore ‘university level’ is not inaccurate, registered providers need to be careful not to be accused of implying that they are Universities by doing so, which means they land up with long-winded explanations that inadvertently confuse the public.
“In this climate, unscrupulous providers can speak with impunity about ‘university equivalent qualifications’ or ‘alignment to the national qualifications framework (NQF)’ or accreditation for one programme with one SETA being used to suggest accreditation of all the others. Or they use words such as ‘provisional’ or ‘pending’ or ‘in process’. They thus capitalise on all marginal terms in order to misdirect.”
At the moment, the best way to educate the public is not to try to get them to understand nuance, but rather to get them to focus on absolutes, Coughlan advises.
“A college is either registered or not. A qualification is either accredited and registered or it is not. And if a programme and a campus are registered and accredited, a certificate to that effect should be readily available. Any campus or qualification that cannot be backed up with a certificate should be viewed as bogus.
“It really is that simple – if a college or higher education provider is legitimate, the provider, its campuses and all its qualifications will be registered with the DHET and they will have a certificate that includes the details. In the absence of these it is not above board.”
“Unregistered and unaccredited colleges at further and higher education level are regrettably still part of our country’s landscape, and it is mostly those who can least afford it who fall victim to these scams.”