By Candice Cai & Geraldine Haruka Ling
Walking past Plaza Singapura, you might miss this unobstrusive poster. Its message, though, is an enticing one.
Earn an education, plus win a free laptop?
Intrigued by the claim, AsiaOne decided to check out what exactly was on offer.
First, we decided to pay the advertised website a visit. The domain name itself was strange. Looking at the URL, it gave the impression that this was a recruitment agency rather than a learning centre as the name given was "Ryana Recruit".
In contrast, the homepage was named "Student Centre". We also found several spelling and grammatical errors on the website. For example, "illegal" is spelt as "iilegal", "business" appeared as "buisness", and according to them, "we also have online studies for the busy people".
Student accommodation offered too
On our visit in early December, the website not only claimed to offer diploma, degree and masters courses, it also offered various types of student accommodation.
Posing as an overseas student interested in coming to Singapore to study, we emailed the student consultant listed on the website to ask about the courses and fees.
In reply, the student consultant, who signed off as Ryana, suggested we take a look at the website and reminded us of the opportunity to walk away with a "free laptop" upon successful registration.
As further encouragement, Ryana mentioned that we should "hurry because it's limited to 100 students only".
When we did not reply after a day, the consultant emailed us again.
This time, she had more to offer, one which we had already seen advertised on the website.
In her second email to us, she said: "I also have a golden opportunity for you to earn money without working." She added that there was the possibility of earning a "constant flow of income every month".
When probed for further details, Ryana seemed unwilling to divulge further information over email. She asked for a telephone number so she could call to give details.
|What British Council and MOE say
AsiaOne ran a check with the British Council and MOE on her claims. However, both did not have any records of "Thames University" or information on their local representatives.
The spokesperson for MOE directed our attention to a list of registered external degree programmes. There, only programmes from "Thames Valley University" is found to be registered, offered by a few different local representatives.
According to MOE, "local organisations representing overseas educational institutions offering their external degree programmes (EDPs) in Singapore should obtain MOE's permission to do so on a programme-by-programme basis."
Even if a school is registered with MOE, the website states clearly that this does not represent an endorsement or accreditation of the quality of the schools, courses offered and the teachers permitted to teach these courses.
However, she did answer other queries that we had emailed her previously, such as how our student pass would be processed.
We had also expressed concerns about the quality of the programmes offered and whether the institution was recognised by the Ministry of Education (MOE).
In her email, she assured us that the school, "Thames University", was recognised. She also said that the school would take care of the processing of the student pass, and that it would be done between four to six weeks.
She then reassured us that the diplomas were from "Thames University in the United Kingdom", claiming that it had been licensed by MOE in Singapore.
She added: "Tell your parents not to worry, because this is Singapore. In Singapore, all schools are licensed and have the permission from MOE."
Again, in her third email, she reminded us about their "system from the USA" that allowed students to "earn cash and education", urging us to sign up as soon as possible.
We tried to email the consultant again after this third exchange, but she did not reply.
A student agent hired by private school
We decided to give a call to Ryana on the mobile number provided on the website, identifying ourselves as reporters from AsiaOne.
Sounding professional and well-spoken, the lady we spoke to confirmed that she was "Ryana". However, that is not her real name. When probed further, she divulged that her real name was Sarah Yusof and she had used her daughter's name as a pseudonym.
During our interview, the 30-year-old revealed that she was an independent student agent hired by a local business school located at Beach Road. She is paid a commission for every student who successfully signs up for a course.
Ms Sarah seemed unaware that the university she was promoting on her website, "Thames University", did not exist, even mentioning it twice during our conversation and insisting that it was a "licensed" university.
When we pointed out the error, she quickly clarified that she actually meant "Thames Valley University", and that the information on the website was a typographical error.
However, when we checked MOE's list of registered external degree programmes again, the business school which hired her was not listed as one of the university's local representatives.
'Laptop will be paid from my own pocket'
When questioned about the free laptop on offer, she said the 'freebie' was her idea and she intended to pay for it from her own pocket.
However, her plan has not seemed to work so far. She claims "students stop calling after enquiring about the fees". According to her, a business degree or masters programme will cost $20,000 or more.
We also asked about her offer to students, that they could "make lots of money without working". She candidly admitted that the "system from the US" was actually a multi-level marketing (MLM) scheme called "Uptrend network", which she was planning to introduce to students who signed up.
Ms Sarah claimed she had not been working as a student agent for long. In fact, she said her full-time job is as a property agent, which explained the advertisements for accommodation found on the same website.
She told us that many other private schools hired student agents as well, but claimed that being a student agent is just a "part-time job" to her.