Diploma and accreditation mills

Distinguishing reputable from disreputable higher education providers can be a challenging undertaking in an age characterised by a surge of online higher education provisions and by higher education trends becoming more and more ‘borderless’.

By publishing a white list of credible quality assurance agencies, EQAR seeks to reduce opportunities for disreputable providers – the so called ‘diploma and degree’ mills as well as ‘accreditation mills’ – to gain credibility.  EQAR thus endeavours to further enhance the confidence of students, institutions, the labour market and society in general in a high quality education provision in the European Higher Education Area.

What are ‘diploma and degree mills’?

‘Diploma mills’ or ‘degree mills’ refer to different (often online based) entities or organisations who claim to offer degrees, diplomas, or certificates in exchange for a sum of money, while offering no real preparation and assessment of knowledge, skills or abilities.

These entities are not recognised by any national authority in higher education although they may claim recognition by different degree awarding bodies such as accreditation mills.

How to recognise a ‘diploma and degree mill’?

Diploma and degree mills usually present the following characteristics:

  • The degree can be easily purchased or customized.
  • There is a claim of an external accreditation, but no evidence of this status, or the external accreditor is an accreditation mill or a certain country, island or state that has little or no regulation concerning the authorisation and functioning of educational providers.
  • They may claim that they are recognised by international organisations such as Council of Europe or UNESCO although none of these organisations recognise or bestow any type of legitimacy to any higher education institution, programme or provision.
  • The entity fails to provide a list of its faculty members or staff and their corresponding qualifications.
  • There is little if any attendance required of students, either online or in class.
  • The physical address of the organisation or its campus is not provided or the address relies simply on a post office box.
  • A sample of the diploma or certificate is presented on the organisation’s website.
  • The organisation has a similar name to other well-known higher education institutions.
  • The website features different payment methods and cards on its main page.
  • The institution may offer ‘non-traditional education’ or ‘distance learning’ and recognise credits based on life experience.

(Information source: CHEA & ENIC-NARIC)

It is important to remember that there are legitimate institutions who have not been externally reviewed by an EQAR-registered quality assurance agency or officially recognised by a national authority. This may be the case for higher education provisions that are in the process of seeking authorisation or accreditation to operate from a recognised quality assurance agency or a national authority.

It is equally possible that certain private institutions which may provide high quality teaching and learning services in higher education may choose not to be accredited for reasons that do not relate to quality.

What are ‘accreditation mills’?

‘Accreditation mills’ are fake quality assurance agencies that claim to carry out external QA activities for bogus higher education institutions in order to help them look legitimate.

How to recognise an ‘accreditation mill’?

‘Accreditation mills’ usually present some or most of the following characteristics:

  • The organisation has published a list of institutions or programmes they claim to have accredited/evaluated/audited on its website, without those institutions and programmes knowing that they are listed or have been externally reviewed.
  • The organisation claims that it is recognised by EQAR or a national authority when it is not.
  • Few if any standards for quality assurance are published by the organisation.
  • The period of time required to have an external review by the organisation is very short.
  • The external QA procedure does not require a review by an external review panel.
  • The organisation grants “permanent” QA labels without any requirement for subsequent periodic external QA.
  • The organisation’s name is similar to other recognised and well established quality assurance agencies.

(Information source: CHEA)

While EQAR ensures that its Register includes a list of trustworthy QA agencies, as confirmed by their substantial compliance with the ESG, an agency’s application for registration or renewal of registration on EQAR is voluntary and limited to quality assurance agencies that carry out external QA within the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). The Register thus does not cover an exhaustive list of quality assurance agencies.