The Austrian edition of last week’s Die Zeit (51/2011) contained an article on such a blatant example of a private university gone wrong that I decided to translate the whole article in order to give it a chance of some exposure. My translation can be found here: if you are, like me, worried about private universities, have a look at the whole story - it is a pretty shocking cautious tale.
Die Zeit reports the story of Imadec University – founded by an ambitious university lecturer who used his excellent connections to the Austrian political Right to change Austrian laws about the accreditation of private universities. His private higher education institution, Imadec, was already settled in a posh castle in Vienna and, once accredited, started to dish out University degrees to the wealthy and influential. Soon there were good reasons to suspect that not all of its alumni had fulfilled approriate criteria to receive such a degree.
Yet this higher education enterprise had strong political support, not least because a number of young politicians of Austria’s centre-right party (ÖVP) and of the far right party (FPÖ) also received degrees there; and at least in one case (the ÖVP’s education spokesman of all people) it seems that a student was admitted in a blatant breach of Austria’s rules about qualifications required to go to university. A number of more prominent politicians received honorary doctorates, in spite of a rule which does not allow private universities in Austria to grant honorary degrees.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi also received an MBA at Imadec: he was admitted in spite of his (then) broken English, and finished his degree in a mere 20 months: this was presumably the qualification which allowed him to move on to the LSE for his doctorate. Gaddafi’s studies at Imadec led to a close connection between Muammar Gaddafi and the (now deceased) notorious FPÖ leader Jörg Haider: suspicious transfers of large amounts of money from Libya to Haider and his party followed.
In the end, it was due only to the opposition’s insistence on making university accreditation independent of government that Imadec finally lost its university status: its management structures, quality assurance and financial set-up were not considered sufficiently secure to allow it to continue, and that in spite of determined pressure from the many infuential friends and alumni of the institution.
The really worrying part about this story is just what a private university apparently can get away with if manages to court the rich and influential, and if you use a ‘university’ like this to forge a network of powerful supporters.
Coud it happen in the UK? I’d like to think that the British poitical system is less corrupt and allows a lot more scrutiny of politicians. But given that Britain’s university system is currently undergoing such big changes, where increasing room is made for private universities, private higher education institutions and their links to business and politics will have to be watched very carefully. In a time of increasing financial pressures, we have already seen some less than acceptable deals with dodgy regimes on the part of public universities: do we have enough safeguards in place to monitor the behaviour of new private higher education institutions?