Salih Bersiha’s University and education Mafia in Tirana, with Genc Pollo and Tonin Gjuraj

 Part I: Der Betrug an Tausenden von Studenten mit ungültigen Diplomen, durch Betrugs Universitäten in Albanien

Universität New York – Tirana

Part II:

The New York Times

  • February 12, 2012

    In Albania, Can a U.S. Diploma Deliver?

    TIRANA, ALBANIA — Rising above the dingy back streets of the Albanian capital, the silhouette, instantly recognizable, shines out like a promise: the Statue of Liberty, symbol of America, land of opportunity — and also the logo of the University of New York, Tirana (U.N.Y.T.), where students pay more than $32,500 for what a sign in the lobby describes as “the only real European and American education” in the country.

    On its elaborate Web site, U.N.Y.T. paints a glowing picture of students enjoying a typical American university experience — complete with student union, college sports, and campus social life — without having to ever leave Albania. Although known locally as “New York University-Tirana” — the name listed on its official charter from the Albanian government — the school has no connection with the campus in Greenwich Village. Nor does it have a dining hall, dormitories, gym, or stadium — the Web page covering sports has been “under construction” for more than a year. The photograph of a library, featured on the cover of the school’s handsomely printed brochure, was in fact taken elsewhere, school officials concede.

    Bevis Fusha for the International Herald Tribune

    The entrance to the University of New York, Tirana.


    But the classes are in English. And thanks to an arrangement with the State University of New York this private Albanian institution does offer its 650 students the chance to acquire an American diploma. By paying the for-profit U.N.Y.T. an extra $100 per credit, for the first three years plus an additional $5,000 for the final year, students can graduate with a degree from Empire State College, a division of SUNY based in Saratoga Springs devoted to adult education and nontraditional learning.

    Known by various labels — “validated” or “franchised” degrees, “supported programs,” or branch campuses — such arrangements between universities in the United States, Britain or Australia and various private providers in the developing world have become increasingly common.

    While students in Tirana seem satisfied, critics say that with a revenue structure based on tuition fees, and an admissions process subject to the need to recruit paying customers, all too frequently these arrangements deliver the form, but not the substance, of an academic education.

    Armand Kapllani, a 2007 Empire State/U.N.Y.T. graduate now studying at Southern Methodist University in Dallas said that many of his courses were pitched at the level of an American high school. “We didn’t even learn how to use a financial calculator. You are graduating with a degree in finance and you don’t know how to use the calculator,” he said.

    But Gavin Lowder, director of international programs at SUNY Empire State, says U.N.Y.T. is held to “the same academic guidelines as the rest of the college. There are no separate standards for our Tirana program.”

    Konstantine Giakoumis, U.N.Y.T.’s deputy rector, said in an interview that “the curriculum is jointly drafted and approved by committees of both universities.”

    On a recent visit to the Albanian campus, SUNY’s influence seemed more like a label than an active presence. The overwhelming majority of courses are taught by local faculty members hired without any input from SUNY, who also have little say over the content. Of 15 Empire State courses offered in the autumn 2011 catalogue, only three appear to be taught by instructors with doctorates. “Our teachers are not SUNY faculty. Not directly,” said Mr. Giakoumis. Empire State College, he added “does not have centrally managed exams.” Instead exams are set and marked by the faculty in Tirana.

    Faculty members teaching SUNY courses “are expected to be approved by the program director,” Mr. Lowder said in an e-mail. “As part of the approval process, résumés are reviewed and approved. Where possible, faculty are interviewed prior to the semester,” he said. But he admitted that faculty teaching U.N.Y.T. courses “are not subject to Empire State review or approval.” For example, Mr. Giakoumis holds a bachelor’s degree from Athens University and a doctorate from the Center for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham, yet teaches both U.S. History and Diplomatic History.

    Asked about the claim that the school offers an “American education,” school officials said that “the description is echoing the university’s concerned and concentrated efforts to adopt the best models from well-established American universities.

    Mr. Kapllani said a group of three to four faculty members from SUNY visited the campus “once — or maybe twice — a year.”

    According to Mr. Lowder, a team from Empire State last visited Tirana in October; the second visit this year is scheduled for the end of February. “Because of budget constraints, the program director does not make visits outside of the team visits unless absolutely necessary,” he said.

    To students, what matters is the credential the prestige of an American degree. And on that score Mr. Kapllani had no complaints. “I had a wonderful time there when I was a student. A degree from U.N.Y.T. is quite respectable and it opens many doors in Albania,” he said.

    Anisa Vrenozi, currently a junior, said “My studying experience in this university has been an excellent one, and I think I have made the best choice choosing this university.”

    But Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, says student satisfaction may not be the right measure. The demand for American or British credentials is so high, regulation so lax, and the opportunity for profit so tempting that when universities “balance their educational missions against their business interests” education often loses, he said. American universities, he said, had “a special responsibility to make sure we live up to our own standards” in any overseas venture.

    On paper, the 13-page Memorandum of Understanding between SUNY and the University of New York, Tirana, supplied on request to a reporter, appears to spell out high standards. Although students can take as many as 96 credits, or about three years’ worth of courses, from U.N.Y.T. and need only 32 SUNY credits to graduate, all students “must fulfill the specific requirements set forth in the E.S.C. guidelines for the degree and the specific major.”

    These include SUNY’s general education requirements and all pre-requisite courses for a student’s chosen major. Albanian faculty members teaching E.S.C. courses appointments are subject to joint approval by both institutions. Student progress is also monitored by both institutions, and Empire State’s Academic Program Director is “authorized to review grade distribution in all courses and for all faculty.”

    On the ground in Tirana the picture is less reassuring. Although the memorandum describes both schools as “partners,” the precise nature of the relationship between SUNY and U.N.Y.T. is difficult to pin down. U.N.Y.T. is itself part of the New York College Group — logo: the Statue of Liberty in blue silhouette over the initials NYC — a Greek company with outposts in Athens and Thessaloniki and other branches in Prague and Belgrade.

    William Lawton, director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a London-based research institution that monitors academic exchange, said “there are different levels of control, from validation and franchising up to branch campus. Basically in franchising the home institution provides the curriculum; in validation they don’t.”


    But in the past year “validation” has become a badge of dishonor in British academic circles because of a series of scandals at the University of Wales, which was shown by the BBC to have validated bogus degrees at Fazley International College, a university named after its founder, a Malaysian pop star, and to have allowed students at Rayat London College, a private school offering University of Wales M.B.A. courses, to pay for qualifications. The damage to its reputation was so great that the university, founded in 1893, closed its doors in October.

    According to Judith Eaton of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation in Washington, U.S. universities “do not have the legal authority to accredit or otherwise sanction (‘validate’) the awarding of a degree by another institution.” Any joint arrangements “would come within the purview of accrediting organizations” that review the home campus, she said.

    Empire State College, like the rest of SUNY, is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, based in Philadelphia. Richard Pokrass, a spokesman for the organization, said in an e-mail, “SUNY/Empire State College is accredited by our Commission, but University of New York, Tirana, is not. UNY-Tirana is approved by our Commission as an ‘other instructional site‘ for SUNY/Empire State College.”

    Asked whether the accreditors had ever seen his campus, Mr. Giakoumis said “I believe inspectors travelled to Greece and Prague, but not to Tirana.” Mr. Pokrass later confirmed that “‘Other instructional sites’ are typically not visited.”

    On a brief visit at the end of January, a reporter watched Keler Gjika listlessly take a class on Advanced Finance through practice questions from Damodaran online, a popular Web site maintained by Aswath Damodaran, a professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University.

    As students stared inertly at the projected screen images, the exercise seemed a long way from an American classroom — and also in striking contrast to the atmosphere at the European University of Tirana, another private college on the other side of the city. All the classes there were in Albanian, but the lively discussion in classrooms and cafeteria, and the well-stocked — and busy — library suggested an institution where curiosity was as important as credentials.

    Despite its offering only an Albanian degree, the rector, Tonin Gjuraj, said the school had no trouble filling its 2,500 places. “Albania was a poor countsaid Mrry. An isolated country. People are eager to get ahead,” . Gjuraj, a former Albanian ambassador to Israel.(Albanian Diplomat Mafia) Darjel Sina, who teaches law, described the school’s tuition of $3,300 a year — or $7,900 for a three-year course for those who pay in cash — as “not cheap. But it’s not expensive.” For popular fields like medicine, law or finance, the competition at Albania’s public universities, where tuition is $200 to $530 a year, is intense. The large number who fail to secure a place guarantees a demand for private providers.

    Kevin Kinser, an expert on cross-border education at SUNY Albany (which is not connected to E.S.C.), said the U.N.Y.T. connection with Empire State College “is a way of developing legitimacy — a branding issue. The conflict comes into it when the public institution asks, why should we devote any attention to serving individuals outside our constituents? What we’ve found in our research is that if it’s out of state, it’s out of mind.”

    Although both Mitch Leventhal, SUNY’s vice chancellor for global affairs, and Gavin Lowder, the director of Empire State College’s international programs, declined to be interviewed, Mr. Lowder did answer questions by e-mail. “This program is not funded by taxpayer dollars,” Mr. Lowder said. “It is a self-funded program. In addition, the program provides opportunities for Empire State College faculty to have international experience, which enhances teaching and learning.’‘ He insisted that faculty “are hired only in consultation with E.S.C.” and that the curriculum “is in accordance with college guidelines.”

    It is also profitable. For every four-credit Empire State course offered at U.N.Y.T. collects $1,200 — the price is fixed in dollars — of which it keeps $384. The balance is passed along to SUNY, along with 68 percent of portfolio fees ($315), orientation ($50), telecommunication ($100 per term) and an assessment fee for transfer credits of as much as $1500. This year, U.N.Y.T. enrolled 111 students in Empire State courses; there are similar arrangements for New York College’s campuses in Greece and the Czech Republic.

    With no investment needed for buildings or teaching staff, and the promise of regular returns, such arrangements are increasingly popular with cash-strapped Western universities. In Albania, a country still emerging from long years of isolation under the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, U.N.Y.T.’s promise of “a guarantee for your future” will always find plenty of takers. But as Mr. Lawton, of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, warns, “the financial risk is inverse to the risk to reputation.”

    “SUNY is at the leading edge of commercialization, but in these days of financial pressure others will be close behind,” said Philip Altbach. By relying on self-assessment, he warns, “American accreditors are leaving the fox to regulate the chicken coop.”

    D.D. Guttenplan (12 February 2012), In Albania, Can a U.S. Diploma Deliver?, The New York Times, retrieved February 14, 2012

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