Cyber university's credibility in question
Vanuatu is a beautiful place for a honeymoon. The Pacific island nation, 1,000 miles east of Australia, has a population of fewer than a quarter of a million, white sands and luminous fish darting among coral reefs.
It is also the home of Revans University, alternatively known as the University of Action Learning (UAL), the degree-awarding body for the International Management Centres Association (IMCA).
Its campus in Port Vila, the capital, does not consist of low-lying lecture theatres dotted among palm trees: instead, it is simply an office in the government training centre building. Its real campus is, as Elizabeth Morris, principal of the School of Emotional Literacy, once boasted, in cyberspace.
The school's prospectus promised students "a valuable accreditation in emotional literacy practitionership", in partnership with the IMCA.
John Wicks, the dean of UAL and head of the IMCA, said they had never professed to be a traditional academic university.
Speaking from Port Vila, he acknowledged the university's location was not helpful to its credibility.
"We don't want to deny Vanuatu's right to have their own accreditation, but it doesn't really help us in the world," he said.
He confirmed the university's Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) accreditation was revoked in 2005, and he expected its British Accreditation Council quality mark to be revoked shortly.
"Possibly the time has come when we have to let our name and our reputation speak for us, rather than relying on external accreditation," he said.
Although the university has lost its DETC recognition, it is recognised by the Vanuatu government. Indeed, Mr Wicks said current doctorate students include Vanuatu's auditor-general, the chairman of its public service commission, and its director-general of lands.
Joanna Kozubska, the Dorset-based UK vice-president of the IMCA, said the school's qualifications were examined by other university academics, and the IMCA awarded degrees under the Education Reform Act 1988.
"IMCA is a legal organisation and makes its awards legally under English law," she said.
However, a spokesman for the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills said the IMCA was neither a registered UK degree awarding body, nor a UK degree course provider.
Instead, it relies on a clause in the Act that allows any established "foreign institution" to award foreign degrees on British soil.
Ms Kozubska said several dozen British students had completed DPhil degrees with the IMCA and UAL, each paying about Pounds 15,000 and working one or two years part-time towards the qualification.
The DPhil students were not required to spend four years working full-time towards a research-based thesis, as is usual with a PhD. Instead, they were asked to complete an "explication" doctorate: an apparently unique process by which they wrote a 10,000-word synopsis of their previous professional careers and their "original contributions to the body of knowledge".