Oxford, but Not That Oxford: How a Tiny For-Profit School Suddenly Got Big

College recruiters walked immigrant neighborhoods, knocking on doors or stopping people in shopping malls, selling the merits of a business-school education and adding a surprising offer: Get paid to enroll.

“Money, money, money,” said Stefan Lespizanu, a former recruiter for Oxford Business College. “Everybody was saying, ‘Hey, push the money.”

News of the opportunity spread, propelled by Facebook groups and word of mouth. Whole families signed up, helping turn a vocational school of 41 students atop a Chinese restaurant into a for-profit juggernaut. Oxford Business College, unaffiliated with the elite school nearby, now has several campuses and more than 8,000 students. That transformation made millions of dollars for its owners, company records show.

Years of free-market changes to British higher education have created opportunities for for-profit schools like Oxford Business College. Through opaque partnership deals with publicly funded universities, schools can offer undergraduate degrees and get access to the British government’s student aid. Some are marketed as ways to get an easy degree and quick money, in the form of about $16,000 a year in government loans for living expenses.

“Join a university without any qualification and get up to 18,500 pounds,” one advertisement on Facebook reads, listing no school, only a phone number and the money figure, which is about $23,000. Dozens of similarly anonymous posts appear on Facebook groups for Eastern Europeans in Britain.

“Do you want to study at the easiest university in U. K.?” asks another ad. “Do you need additional income?”

Higher-education experts say that partnerships between publicly funded universities and for-profit schools like Oxford Business College can prepare older students and those in underserved areas for better careers. Oxford Business College offers two-day-a-week schedules to working students and others who take nontraditional paths to higher education. Some students said the college offered opportunities that they otherwise would not have, and a national student survey showed strong approval ratings.

Many of the partnerships are new, and it is difficult to determine whether they help students land higher-paying jobs after graduation. The data, in general, is murky.

What is clear is that schools are making money in a fast-growing corner of the world-renowned British university system with little oversight. Regulators say the system is vulnerable to exploitation.

Hertford College at the elite Oxford University, with which Oxford Business College is not affiliated, in 2022.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

Oxford Business College has at least three partnership deals with accredited, publicly funded universities. Every new student admitted under these deals means tuition money for both the college and its publicly funded partner.

That created huge incentives to enroll students, former recruiters and interviewers recalled. Recruiters, known as “sales executives,” said they were paid based on how many students they enrolled. Some students who struggled to speak English were admitted, according to more than a dozen students and former staff members.

Even applicants who plagiarized answers on admissions tests were given a second chance or, in at least one case, put forward for admission, according to internal messages among the interviewers, who tested the applicants’ English.

“He copied and pasted his answer from an online source,” one interviewer wrote in a text message to his supervisor.

“Pass him,” she replied.

Many students said they were happy with the chance to learn business principles and improve their English. But others wondered how they would repay their loans and whether the school was adequately preparing them for good jobs. Interviewers questioned whether, with such a lenient approach, the students they passed could benefit from an undergraduate education.

“I was thinking to myself that this person would struggle,” said Jake Smith, a former interviewer. “But because I’ve been told from above that I should, I will pass them.”

Oxford Business College declined repeated requests for interviews over several months. In written responses to questions, the school said it offered educational opportunities to a diverse student body. It has robust admissions standards that are consistent with its peers and rejects 60 percent of applicants, said the school’s director and co-owner, Padmesh Gupta.

In an October memo about fraud risks, England’s higher-education regulator, the Office for Students, said that partnership agreements were at risk of exploitation. “Students may be registered without appropriate checks that their language qualifications and skills are genuine,” it wrote. Students may be pocketing living-expenses loans, it added, “without any intention of meaningful study.”

Debates over for-profit colleges are common in the United States. In England, they have emerged only recently, following changes that have made the higher-education system more like its American counterpart.

But rules that exist in the United States are not in place in England. For example, Oxford Business College offered its students a “golden ticket” of £250, about $310, for everybody they referred who enrolled. That practice is prohibited in the United States.

One student said she had referred dozens of people, including her husband. He said that he did not attend class and had enrolled for the government student aid. His wife said that she did his schoolwork. The college said it has strong attendance figures.

This business model succeeds in large part because of how England funds higher education. Universities used to be largely free, financed by direct government spending. That money has been steadily replaced by tuition and student loans.

Those loans cover tuition for the school and living expenses for the students, who are required to repay the money only after making $34,000 a year.

Experts say it is good that schools tell low-income students that money is available. But the money should be pitched as a way to finance education, they said, not as the point of enrolling.

At Oxford Business College, that distinction was not always clear. One student even pulled out her bank card at the school, expecting payments on the spot, recalled Antonino Pilade, a former visual content producer for the college.

“I could no longer understand,” he said. “Are we a bank, or are we a college?”

Buckinghamshire New University, the publicly funded school whose 2019 partnership propelled Oxford Business College’s transformation, said that it had seen “no evidence of wrongdoing” but that it would pause recruitment through the college and assign staff members to oversee recruitment and academic programs there.

The University of West London, another partner, said it was confident that its students at Oxford Business College met the same admission standards. Ravensbourne University London, a third partner, did not respond to questions.

In a brief telephone interview, Titiksha Shah, a dress designer who owns 60 percent of Oxford Business College, said she did not know how the school runs on a daily basis.

It has changed in recent years, she said, to become a “government-funded college.”

‘Competitive and Desperate’

Partnerships between publicly funded universities and other schools, known as franchising arrangements, have been possible for years in Britain. But only recently have they have become so lucrative for colleges and a lifeline for the universities, experts say.

That is because direct government aid has all but dried up and tuition is capped by law. Universities, particularly those that cannot attract higher-paying international students, are scrambling for revenue.

“The market has got a lot more competitive and desperate,” said Mark Leach, the founder of Wonkhe, a higher-education research organization in England. He called the nearly unchecked proliferation of for-profit schools through franchising a policy failure that would ultimately need reckoning with.

Ninety thousand full-time undergraduate students were enrolled as part of franchising arrangements in the past academic year. That number has nearly tripled in four years, according to the Office for Students. 

A busy street in Slough, where Stefan Lespizanu, a former recruiter for the Oxford Business College, pushed people to apply to the school.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

Regulators do not conduct checks on partnership deals, and academic data is not broken out by franchise agreements, making it hard to tell how students perform. No public data exists on how many students each partnership has or who the partners are. The Office for Students said on Thursday that it was working to improve partnership data to help improve regulation.

None of the schools would discuss the terms of their deals.

The year before its deal with Buckinghamshire, Oxford Business College had about £25,000 in the bank and Buckinghamshire ran a deficit, corporate records show. The following year, Oxford Business College had more than £1 million on hand and Buckinghamshire was running a surplus, thanks to a broader growth strategy that included franchising, records show.

Under these arrangements, students attending Oxford Business College will graduate with a degree from a partner university.

Admissions Criteria

Laura Faria, a former sales executive, said that she had begun to play down the money in her pitches, fearing that it would tarnish the school’s reputation. Soon, she said, she did not need to advertise at all.

“People were just bringing each other in,” she recalled.

Oxford Business College said it marketed the loans because many first-generation students had no idea that money was available. Many of the students are immigrants, living and working legally in Britain.

Students who enroll at Oxford Business College enter through what is known as a foundation year, which helps them prepare for a bachelor’s program. But they still must meet English language requirements. Internal messages show that interviewers tried to respect these standards, and the school offered free language classes to help unsuccessful applicants reapply.

The college’s storefront on George Street in Oxford. It now has several sites.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

But Mr. Smith, the former interviewer, said, “The guidance that I was told fairly explicitly was that the more students that the college gets, the more funding they get, so I shouldn’t be so harsh.”

Last summer, Mr. Smith sent his supervisor this excerpt from an admission essay: “Whomen mi wife en wi thinking to ghet him whit as hire to uk when i si his education i oz very hapy because mi mom ground hi very well.”

The supervisor, Tayyaba Zia, told him to pass the student if he otherwise scored well. Mr. Smith said that he had already rejected him, and apologized.

These days, the school offers testimonial videos under grammatically incorrect headlines like “Why Alex feel fortunate?” and “Elizabeth have a dream.”

‘What’s Going on Here?’

The payoff of an undergraduate education at Oxford Business College is hard to assess. Students who enrolled in 2019 are only now graduating.

The school, though, is faring well. In 2022, it earned about £6 million and had about £15 million in the bank, records show.

In interviews, some students said they were happy with their teachers and the program.

“It’s an amazing thing to have a university diploma,” said Loredana Stana, a student from Romania. She said she was learning principles that helped her run her beauty salons. She, her partner, her uncle and his wife all studied at Oxford Business College, she said.

Others said it was hard to thrive when classmates seemed to attend just for the money or struggled with English.

Lillian Borsa, a former student at the Oxpens Road campus of Oxford Business College, said she was frustrated at having to work in groups where people spoke “less than basic English.”Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

“Some of the people in the class — at the beginning, they didn’t speak English at all,” said Lidia Lei, a third-year student from East Timor. “What kind of university is this? We were wondering what’s going on in here. Like the university just wants to make money?”

Ms. Lei is set to graduate this year with a business management degree from Buckinghamshire New University. She questioned whether her education was worth the debt, and whether it had prepared her for a good career.

“I feel worry a lot,” she said. “How am I going to manage to find this kind of job?”

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