Private University Fail (with a dose of political corruption)

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?

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3 Responses to Private University Fail (with a dose of political corruption)

  1. MM says:

    As embarrassing as the whole IMADEC case is, it shows that the basic quality assurance framework of Austria’s private universities law is working, at least mostly. They pulled accreditation from IUV and IMADEC and the pitiful UMIT PhD programme, which seemed to produce a lot of dubious doctorates, despite all political pressure they must have felt for it.

    What’s more worrying to me is that an institution like “Danube University Krems” is effectively exempt from all accreditation scrutiny, thanks to being a sort of special public university. However, it’s run like a money-making machine: They’re offering an insane number of degree programmes (more than 200 last time I checked and still growing uncontrollably), their staff (about 200) is mediocre at best, and the admission criteria are in fact negligible (“Matura” is typically optional for these so-called “postgraduate” programmes). I’ve had some good connections into that place and the only thing that counts there is to recruit paying students, even if you’re supposedly a “scientific employee”. As a new hire, you’re even required to sign a document that says it’s your responsibility to earn the school enough money to keep paying for you. Since research activity is barely noticeable in most departments except for some blah-blah on the website, the only way is to go out and lure in students who can finally get a shiny “Master’s” for a couple thousand Euros, even if they haven’t seen any higher education previously.

    So the worst example of “private” universities gone wrong in Austria is (de jure) a public university.

  2. Maria Pretzler says:

    Thank you very much for this detailed insight. It really contributes a lot of additional food for thought.

    I am trying to see what the lessons might be for the UK – and I have to admit that, having left Austria 15 years ago, I was surprised to see some aspects of a much more marketised university system there than in the UK. Everything I know about Krems strikes me as rather worrying – wasn’t it meant to be Austria’s answer to Oxbridge? That was always a difficult cause, and embedding centres of excellence in existing universities would surely have been a better use of public money, I’d have thought.

    In any case, Krems is a lesson, and I think we will see some of those dangers within the established public universities in the UK as well – in a fully marketised system, what will universities offer?

    I think it is an advantage that there is an established system of admission quality control (via UCAS) in the UK, although there are plenty of stories of high-paying overseas students being admitted with insufficient qualifications, fleeced for their money, and then sent away with little to show for their money. This is still a disadvantage, and I see very good practice in accommodating overseas students generally, but it’s a constant temptation and risk in such a system.

    In the end, the answer is probably better quality control – and I agree, Austria’s accreditation system in the end did its job. The problem with quality control is, of course, that it can easily become too stifling and oppressive, with a whole rage of unintended consequences: something the UK system knows far too well already…

  3. MM says:

    I’m not sure what the original idea of Krems was, but it’s been touted as a “University of Continuing Education” from the start. It’s something of a crippled university as it’s only authorised to offer postgraduate education (Masters and something like the equivalent of PGCert/PGDip). Still, one could probably build something useful out of this idea, but it hasn’t really worked for the past 15 yrs and I doubt that it ever will unless there is a strong incentive for moving towards quality instead of quantity.

    Speaking of quality, the purported Oxbridge equivalent that you had in mind was probably IST Austria (although it’s more of a research-only institution, not a full university), and that might even turn out to be a success after all. At least I take it as good signs that the hype around it has ebbed down (politicians don’t talk about it anymore, even Lower Austria’s provincial emperor has fallen uncharacteristically silent) and they’re now busy establishing research groups that look quite impressive. I was certainly one of those who feared that it would become yet another ‘elite’ degree mill for the offspring of the rich and powerful, but it looks like I was wrong.

    It would really be illuminating to analyse why these institutions developed so differently. I think it’s quite a feat that IST-A seems to have wrestled free from direct political influence, and all that without some external quality control authority beating them into submission (just like Krems, IST-A is a unique public institution without equivalents in Austria).

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