WHEN Najib Usman, a student of Bauchi State University, first received an invitation to attend a leadership summit in Dubai where he would be awarded an honorary doctorate, he felt flattered. At first glance, it was a tempting offer.
The invitation was from the London Graduate School (LGS), an online academic institution affiliated with the Commonwealth University. Both institutions have their head office at the Mayfair Point 34, South Molton Street in London and are in a validated partnership, where students can undertake a programme or study at one institution and upon completion, receive a degree award conferred by the partner university.
In this case, CommonWealth University is the degree awarding body, while London Graduate School is the education and training provider.
The letter sent to Najib by the LGS indicated that he had been nominated along “with a distinguished number of personalities who will accept to attend and participate in the Dubai leadership workshop to receive an honorary degree in recognition of your achievement and contribution.”
After a while, he grew sceptical. It was too good to be true.
“I know the weight of a doctorate degree and I have not done anything extraordinary to deserve such,” he told The ICIR.
The school also demanded $4,500 as a workshop fee, which made Najib more suspicious.
“It didn’t look credible; I do not have any prior engagement with the London Graduate School. At least their email should have stated who referred them to me since it’s not me that applied for it.
“The school was in London, so why should the honorary confirmation be held in Dubai?
I was curious. So, I posted it on Twitter. Then, a guy commented under the tweet that it was a sham. In the end, I ignored the email.”
Independent findings by The ICIR would later reveal that for $5,000, the London Graduate School and CommonWealth University can award you an honorary doctorate in any field of your choice.
The $5,000 charge is equivalent to N4 million. But in some cases, it can be subsidised at $4,500, which is about N3.5 million.
As soon as payment is settled, participants are only expected to attend a seminar in Dubai, where the degree will be conferred. The ICIR findings show that these institutions are degree mills that offer illegitimate academic degrees for a fee.
As Internet evolution allows online institutions to become an important part of the academic landscape, it also provides access to unaccredited or loosely accredited virtual schools that award high school and college degrees. The degrees are often awarded based on “life experience” or less.
How to get an honorary doctorate from LGS
The London Graduate School hosts its executive leadership seminars every quarter of the year. Before each event, it sends out invitation letters to random persons who may or may not accept to attend the seminars.
By tracking social media posts about the institution, The ICIR found several persons who have received an invitation letter to attend one of its seminars between 2016 and 2023. Some of those who accepted the offer believed it is credible and those who declined considered it fraudulent.
“If you have earned it, the graduate school, at their discretion, can award you an honorary degree,” according to Abubakar Yunus Ahmed, a recipient of the honorary degree.
Ahmed was a member of the House of Representatives representing Yamaltu/Deba constituency in Gombe state when he received the award in July 2018.
The former lawmaker said the school only awards honorary degrees to noble members of the society in appreciation of their achievement. He said, ” LGS Honorary degree is earned. It is not just given to anyone. When you have earned it, the university will give you an honorary card to encourage you.”
But, contrary to his claim, the LGS has an application form and a copy of its invitation letter published on its website for any interested person. The institution listed the criteria to qualify, such as philanthropy, success and integrity. However, there is no effort to certify whether the applicant has met these criteria.
To affirm the process and validate the lawmaker’s claim, The ICIR filled this form three times using Pseudo names and got three invitations to attend a seminar in Dubai and Rwanda shortly after.
Professor Charles Ukeje, Obafemi Awolowo University Honorary degree committee chairman, strongly criticised the process. He believed that no one should apply for an honorary degree or be randomly nominated. He said it requires a rigorous process, and due diligence must be done.
“There are criteria for nomination and layers of work to be done before a person is awarded an honorary degree,” said Ukeje.
“Many of these institutions don’t do due diligence and it oozes in the award process. It oozes fraud, but I don’t understand why people don’t see it. It is greedy to accept an honorary degree that you have to pay for.”.=
He went further to differentiate between honorary and regular academic degrees. He said an honorary doctorate degree differs from an academic degree and that recipients of the former may use the title “Doctor” but must indicate that the degree is honorary.
However, only a few recipients make this indication when using the title.
Public office holders recipients of fake honorary degree
The ICIR found that recipients of the honorary awards are often Africans, many of whom are political office holders in their respective countries.
Some of them are; Jewel Howard-Taylor, Vice-president of Liberia. She was awarded an honorary degree in Public Administration by the LGS in collaboration with the Commonwealth University and one of the other partner universities, Universidad Empresarial De Costa Rica, in Costa Rica, in March 2019.
Ghanaian politician and member of parliament of Tema East constituency, Daniel Titus Glover, was conferred with an honorary degree in Shipping Management in 2018.
The Sierra Leonean Minister of Tourism and Culture, Memunatu Pratt, received an honorary doctorate in peace and conflict Management from the LGS in Dubai in July 2019.
The ICIR found a number of well known or influential Nigerians who have been beneficiaries of the two institution’s academic largesse. Chima William, an environmentalist and Executive Director of Environment Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, is one of such recipients.
“Behold Dr Chima Williams (LLD, honorary causa – Human rights). Yours faithfully was awarded an honorary degree of law specialising in Human Rights by the London Graduate School in collaboration with Commonwealth University College, Cotonou,” he declared on his Facebook page.
However, Chima said he received the award after an “intensive but rewarding executive course.” The ICIR found a claim untrue as getting an honorary degree does not require any rigorous or intensive process.
On March 15, The ICIR attempted to reach out to Williams to clarify why he described the process as intensive but could not reach him over the phone. He also did not respond to messages sent to his phone number and Facebook account.
Also, Asma’u Abdulaziz Yari, the wife of the former Zamfara State governor, Abdulaziz Abubakar Yari, received an honorary doctorate degree in Business Management and Leadership from the LGS in 2017.
The CommonWealth College and the London Graduate School share the same address, according to information provided on their websites.
The London Graduate School, which claims to be registered in the UK, was founded by David Iornem, a UK-based Nigerian. According to media reports, David was a member of the Nigerian Senate in the 3rd Republic and is a founding father of the defunct Action Congress (AC) and Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in Benue State.
However, his son, Kohol Shadrach Iornem is the beneficial owner of the institution. A search into the institution’s profile on the UK public data, a website for Public sector information created by the state Digital Service, showed that Kohol became the director of London Graduate School in April 2021.
On its website, David is described as the school’s Director of International Operations and Kohol as the Director of Programmes. While the London Graduate School is a registered business in the UK, it was only incorporated in 2020. Yet, it has been awarding honorary degrees as far back as 2016.
The CommonWealth University, on the other hand, is registered in Panama, a Caribbean tax haven. Although The ICIR was unable to verify the identity of its principal owner, this report described David Iornem as the founder and project director.
The ICIR also noticed a similarity in the management body of both CommonWealth University and the LGS.
For instance, David and Kohol fill the same role in both institutions. A certain Professor, Dilip Nandkeolyar, identified as the co-chancellor of the LGS, is also the Co-chancellor of the CommonWealth University.
Another member of the school management, Sadiksha Rai, is the Head of the Department for Continuing Education Programmes for both institutions. Also, Zacharys Gundu, the former Pro-Chancellor of Benue State University, is an adjunct faculty member in both schools.
Unregistered academic institutions
While the London Graduate School is a registered business in London, it is not a licensed academic institution. The LGS does not meet the legal definition of an independent (private) institution in the country as it is not registered with the Department of Education (DFE)
On June 26, The ICIR contacted the DFE through the online forms on its website to confirm the status of the LGS. The DFS responded on July 17 and disclosed that neither LGS nor CommonWealth University is registered as a UK higher education provider.
“I can assure you that the Department takes any allegations of fraud seriously. An initial search for the two UK Higher Education (HE) providers that you mention in your correspondence indicates that neither are listed as an Office for Students registered provider list and may not be legitimate HE providers,” the DFS told ICIR in an email.
The ICIR also wrote to the Office of Student (OFS), the independent regulator of higher education in England, on June 6 to certify if the LSG is a recognised institution in the country and is licensed to provide any academic degree.
The OFS responded on June 23 that “neither London Graduate School nor Commonwealth University are registered with the OfS and therefore cannot award English degrees, including honorary degrees.”
The regulatory body noted that “it appears that Commonwealth University may award online degrees, including honorary degrees, from elsewhere in the world.”
To authenticate the status of the Commonwealth University in Panama, where the institution claims to be registered, The ICIR sent an email to the Panama Minister of Education, Maruja Gorday de Villalobos, on June 26, 2023.
The move was to see if the “CommonWealth University is registered and recognised by the Ministry of Education in Panama and can award degrees.” However, the minister is yet to respond to the email.
Founder’s fraud case
There’s a pending court case against the London Graduate School founder, David for allegedly defrauding people.
In August 2013, Iornem was remanded at the Kuje Prison for allegedly operating an illegal University. He was arraigned by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, on a three-count charge bordering on the fraudulent collection of about N200 million from three unsuspecting persons.
The anti-graft agency said the former senator defrauded these people using admission rackets into his foreign institutions – the Island Open University and the Commonwealth University.
His victims in that case were Professor Is-haq Oloyede, a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ilorin and Registrar of the Joint Admission and Examination Board, (JAMB), a certain Akinkuotu Albert Oluwatoyin and Jamilu Rabiu Sani.
He was granted bail for the sum of N100,000 on the same day. And the case has been adjourned multiple times since then.
In 2018, a judge of the Federal High Court, Abuja, Ahmed Mohammed, condemned the trial delay. At the resumption of the proceedings in October 2018, the judge said, “taking into account his status in the society and his age, I am not comfortable that this witness (Prof Isaq Oloyede) is being called for the fourth time only for cross examination purposes. I will not condone this delay.”
The CommonWealth University and the London Graduate School claim to have partnered with higher institutions listed in the UNESCO handbook. They have the same partners.
The partners include Universidad Azteca in Mexico, École Superieure Universities in Cotonou, Universidad Empresarial de Costa Rica, Aldersgate College, 98 Ft. Pte. Ltd in Singapore.
St Clements University. Online Business School is the only partner school exclusive to the LGS.
However, The ICIR looked through the UNESCO handbook and found that only one institution, Universidad Azteca in Mexico, is on the list.
Instead, The ICIR found that some of the said institutions are fraudulent.
The Aldersgate College is one of the LGS’s major partners. It claims to be one of the oldest institutions in the Philippines. However, checks by The ICIR show that Aldergate is not registered in the Philippines as claimed.
A search through the Philippines Accrediting Association of Schools, Colleges and Universities (PAASU) showed that the school is not on its list of accredited schools.
The university hotline on Google differs from what exists on its Facebook page. The hotline on Facebook is a Nigerian phone number. And a search on Truecaller showed that the number belonged to a certain Josephine C. Egbuta.
When The ICIR contacted Egbuta to find out about Aldersgate University, she claimed the
school stopped functioning in 2020.
“What we operate now is Azteca University in Mexico,” said Eguta.
She told The ICIR that she does not work with Aldersgate University. Rather, she runs a Ghanaian University that is affiliated with it.
Her university is called Saint Williams International College and is located in Ghana, although she primarily resides in Nigeria.
The ICIR asked if her institution is affiliated with the London Graduate School or the CommonWealth University, and she said, “Yes, but we only offer honorary doctorate degrees and professorship and not for academics.”
Also, Ecole Superieure University was delisted by the Nigerian National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in 2021. The body said the university was one of the many doctorate mills that award degrees to students a few months after Matriculation.
An email was sent to the LGS director, Shadrach Kohl Iornem, on July 25. The email was forwarded to Sadiksha Rai, the LGS Head of Department for Continuing Education Programmes.
Rai, in response, said, “We do not have powers to award degrees, and we make this clear even on our website and other correspondence. However, we have partnerships with accredited universities (in different countries) where we teach.”
She noted that the school practises a type of academic partnership used by many higher institutions in the UK.
“We do not charge money for honorary doctorate degrees. As explained earlier, we organise workshops in different training destinations, including London, Singapore, the USA, Ghana, Nigeria, Benin Republic, Dubai and Switzerland.
“Our workshops are usually from 2 days to a maximum of 2 weeks. The workshop fee covers the tuition, course materials, tea, snacks and lunch during the seminar sessions, intensive seminar and coaching by a team of management experts trained from top universities.
She also said, “the negative information you may have come across about our institution is false. For some, it is ignorance that has led them to write those unfounded claims.
“Others deliberately publish negative news even when we have provided evidence of our existence and activities.
“It is also disturbing that because a few members of our faculty are from Nigeria, people from other countries, especially African countries try to discredit our institution even when these faculty members are high ranking professors in Nigerian universities.”
The ICIR also wrote to CommonWealth University on August 2. However, it did not get a response.
Beloved John is an investigative reporter with International Centre for Investigative Reporting.
You can reach her via: Bjohn@icirnigeria.org