The BBC’s investigative current affairs documentary program, Panorama, has blown the lid off serious fraud by dishonest education agents who are ripping of the UK’s student loans system.
The investigation ran for 10 months and focused on dodgy education agents and bogus students defrauding the UK Government, and private colleges that offer courses approved for student loans.
In a nutshell the dodgy education agents recruit bogus students so they can claim government funded loans they are not entitled to.
The student loan system funds 112 private colleges in the UK to the tune of about £400m a year.
Students on government-approved courses at private colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland can, in certain circumstances, claim up to entitled to £11,000 in loans to cover living expenses and up to £6,000 in tuition fee loans, which is paid direct to the colleges.
The BBC investigation has named Greenwich School of Management (also known as GSM London) and Grafton College as targets of the fraudulent activity. Plymouth University has been drawn into the education agent scandal because it accredits degrees from GSM. So too has Pearson and The Open University, which provide courses offered through Grafton College.
There is no suggestion that any of the institutions or companies was aware of the fraud, but all have moved quickly to address the issue, albeit in different ways:
Grafton College said it is unaware of any fraudulent activities.
GSM London issued a statement saying that it is “shocked and appalled”, and that it has terminated its contract with the agent in question.
A Plymouth University spokesman said:
We have requested that GSM London carries out a thorough investigation into all matters raised. We are launching a full and independent investigation of our own which will be externally led.
Pearson said it takes all allegations of malpractice extremely seriously, and it has commenced an investigation. It has placed a block on Grafton so that the college will not be able to register or certificate students for Pearson qualifications while the investigation is done.
The Open University said it was seeking “urgent clarification” from Grafton College, and that it would immediately terminate any partnership found not to be meeting its requirements on standards and behaviour.
What did the BBC uncover exactly?
Well it’s not good.
Here are the low-lights of the education agent scandal.
The BBC made an undercover approach to Imran Saeed Sheikh, an agent for Grafton College who also owns several barber shops in east London.
He said that for a payment of £200 he could get the BBC’s undercover students on to a two-year Higher National Diploma (HND) business course at Grafton College so they could obtain student loans.
He also offered to provide everything the students would need to complete the course in return for a slice of their loan money. The BBC alleges he said:
When your first installment comes we take £1,500. With this we take care of your attendance for the whole year, get your eight assignments done.
One of the undercover students said they did not meet the entry criteria for the course because they had left school at 16. For a further payment of £600, Imran Sheikh provided the student with a bogus certificate for a course they had not studied which met the threshold for entry for the Grafton College course.
The student was accepted on to the Grafton College course, and quickly received the first £3,600 installment of their student loan money.
Imran Sheikh also helpfully gave the undercover further detailed advice on how the scam works, including how to avoid attendance, or doing any course work:
Come at around 10.00, take two hours off from your job, mark your attendance, tick mark your name, leave after two hours.
You just sit like a dummy and keep nodding along.
When the college gives you assignments, you don’t have to do them. These go directly to our agent in Pakistan. He gets people to do them.
The BBC sting operation included covert filming inside GSM London, which has more than 4,000 students at its Greenwich campus.
A BBC undercover student secretly filmed meetings with Charles Logan, an education agent who has a contract with GSM to recruit students.
Mr Logan receives commission payment of 10% of the tuition fee for each student enrolled, which typically amounts to about £600.
After the undercover student was admitted on to a three-year honours course in business management, Mr Logan hooked him up with someone who could do his assignments.
The student later bought two assignments for £526 and a third from another online company. He submitted them as his own work. GSM did not detect the cheating and awarded the assignments good marks.
The results were ratified by Plymouth University which validates and awards degrees studied at GSM.
GSM has suspended its contract with Mr Logan and commenced an external investigation.
Charles Logan’s lawyer stated that he “emphatically denies acting fraudulently, either for profit or to assist students in fraudulently claiming student finance.”
Tip of the iceberg
It’s a good bet that the BBC investigation has only scratched the surface of this education agent scandal.
The calls for further investigation have, quite rightly, come quickly.
Meg Hillier, the chairwoman of the UK Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee – it’s spending watchdog – wants a police investigation. Responding to information presented to her by the BBC she said:
There is criminal fraud going on from what you’ve shown me. It needs to be referred to the police.
The National Union of Students has also called for an inquiry into the abuses exposed by the BBC.
Whatever form these further investigations take only the most optimistic optimist would think that what the BBC has uncovered so far is the extent of the wrongdoing.
No doubt more dodgy agents will be exposed, and more educational institutions and companies will be pulled into this before it’s over.
Spot fires around the world
This latest education agent scandal in the UK comes at the same time that concerns have flared up about education agents in other key international education markets.
Is your education agent management house in order?
Stories like this one can (and probably should) make educational institution administrators and in-house recruiters feel worried.
The benefits of working with education agents are clear, but so are the risks.
The BBC exposé has once again shown the damage that rogue agents can cause. None of the institutions or brands named in the BBC story are accused of wrongdoing, but their names and brands have nevertheless been drawn into the education agent scandal. Clearly they would all wish that was not the case.
The importance of educational institutions committing to and implementing best practice education agent management can’t be overstated. It’s not a complete protection against dodgy agents, but it’s a minimum requirement to sensibly mitigate the risk.
AgentBee can help
It’s easy-to-use software that supports educational institutions to implement education agent management best practice.
A key benefit for AgentBee clients is risk mitigation. Education agent performance evaluation is built in to the system to help institutions spot problems early.
AgentBee also provides regular Education Agent Alerts so institutions can stay on top of any reported concerns about education agents and consider appropriate action.
And it’s not just about managing education agent risk. The agent engagement tools included in AgentBee save time for in-house recruitment teams and support increased enrollments through your agent channel.
AgentBee also offers simple pricing, no lock-in contracts, and an implementation option that costs next-to-nothing.