#95 The G|O Briefing, April 28, 2022
G|O investigation: students denounce worthless diplomas from some of Geneva's private "universities" — WTO Secretariat reform still contentious
This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
Today in The Geneva Observer, an investigation, a follow-up story, and an op-ed.
Geneva and the region are host to some world-renowned academic institutions. But it also has a number of private establishments capitalizing on International Geneva’s unique position as multilateralism’s operational center to offer diplomas in “international relations” or “diplomacy.” A G|O investigation into two such establishments—the Geneva School of Diplomacy (GSD) and Swiss UMEF University—reveals, however, that their programs often fail to live up to their promise, with students lured by dubious and misleading claims. They are less “universities” or higher education institutions than diploma mills, critics allege.
In February, we wrote about a WTO Secretariat left “shaken” by the reform initiated by its chief, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Three months later, in what is now a much more difficult environment due to the war on Ukraine, the situation appears to be even more tense and the reform more contentious than ever, prompting both staff and Member States to question Dr. Ngozi’s management style.
We conclude with an op-ed on plans by both Sweden and Finland to join Nato. Former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister Carl Bildt argues that, in light of Putin’s war, joining the alliance is no longer a strategic choice for the two countries but an “existential imperative.”
It's all below. Thank you for reading us.
COMPLAINING OF WORTHLESS DIPLOMAS, FORMER STUDENTS CLAIM THEY WERE DECEIVED BY SOME OF GENEVA'S PRIVATE UNIVERSITIES
By Sarah Zeines
A G|O investigation reveals that sham diplomas, misleading claims, and shifty business practices seem to be common at some of Geneva’s private “universities”. The Geneva Observer has reviewed the documented complaints of more than a dozen former students and staff members from two different private colleges: the Geneva School of Diplomacy & International Relations (GSD), and Swiss UMEF University. These allegations tell the story of a system that, its critics say, is in need of some serious oversight and action. However, a laissez-faire approach seems to prevail at the Cantonal level, which appears unconcerned by the potential reputational damage done to Geneva. While Bern plays for time until new certifications come into force in January, in the meantime, unaware of the problems and misled by baiting tactics, students keep enrolling at these two institutions.
A campus housed in a magnificent setting overlooking Lake Geneva. A long list of distinguished alumni, including Nobel Laureates such as Jose Ramos Horta and Mikhail Gorbachev. A partnership with Georgetown University, one of the most renowned American colleges. On its website, GSD boasts of being a “small, exclusive university institute in the very heart of international diplomacy: Geneva, Switzerland, … offering a unique combination of conceptual courses in diplomacy and international relations and applied internships within the diplomatic community or an international organization to prepare students for their future careers.”
For “Ben” (not his real name), these were all things that meant enrolling at GSD a few years back looked like the right move to boost his career. CHF 18,000 poorer, he now says it was a costly mistake, even if it didn’t derail his professional path. “I am lucky to have found work in my field of choice, notwithstanding this completely empty experience. Other than access to the UN library, the school offered us no ties to any international bodies. We were on our own for pretty much everything.”
“GSD’s partnership with Georgetown University was a major selling point for me, but it meant nothing. When I tried to transfer my credits for a course, the admissions office of Georgetown told me they had never heard of GSD.” Georgetown did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The GSD program was a “joke,” another former student told us: “Instead of studying public affairs in-depth as announced initially, we revisited our high school history curriculum.” A former professor who taught at GSD is blunter in her assessment: “The whole thing is a scam.” The strong word she uses reflects her astonishment at the authorities’ refusal to act.
The G|O spoke to more than a dozen people in researching this story. Given the sensitivity of the matter and, as some told us, because the GSD Director appears to be well connected with the local political establishment, they prefer to remain anonymous.
MISMANAGEMENT AND UNRECOGNIZED PHDS
Ben’s is not an isolated case. Several former GSD students who agreed to talk to The G|O confirmed his story. From completely misleading claims to potential legal issues, unjustified fees for material or housing, compulsory biased school surveys to be submitted before exams, different deadlines given at random for shared assignments, and administrative unresponsiveness, the list of their complaints is long.
“Leila” says that her now 23-year-old was upset and suffered from the experience at GSD. The student attended an International Affairs BA program, back in 2017. “It’s not even about the money,” insists Leila. “It’s about principle. Some of the younger students are away from home for the first time in their lives. It’s a moment when support is important. But the school provides no dedicated system or staff available to assist them. The shared apartment that was offered to us was very far from the classrooms, and overpriced, so we searched for something ourselves. Finally, after six months, we found a better place. Every time we contacted the school’s secretariat with an inquiry or complaint, we were met with invalid excuses and irrelevant answers. Communications were rare and often offensive and hostile. After a year, we decided to change schools. Only a small portion of the credits obtained at GSD was recognized elsewhere.” And instead of the promised mansion advertised on the website, classes are given in a temporary structure hidden behind the property.
There also are allegations of serious mismanagement. A former GSD employee told us that the school often seemed to fail in meeting basic legal requirements. “At one point, the Office cantonal de la population was investigating the school,” recalls our source. “A young Nigerian had been here for seven years in a BA program on a student visa. On another occasion, a man who had signed up for a PhD program got into a very heated conflict with the school… GSD is not authorized to deliver PhD degrees … [but] had shamefully accepted the student’s application money. The school also recently awarded the supposed King and Queen of Romania - since Romania doesn’t have a monarchy - with a Doctorate honoris causa. These shifty practices made me uncomfortable.”
Another former lecturer complains that the curriculum content does not match the GSD’s slick PR campaign: “The professors are often underqualified and underpaid. Some of the better ones give lectures online. Students that come here pay a lot of money to get an on-campus education. They often feel cheated when they start their programs and realize that many classes are given online, even before the pandemic.”
Last Spring, seven former students decided to make their complaints official. All of them had been attracted by the promise of having their careers jump-started or boosted by attending what they thought was a highly professional and reputable institution. But after a year of disillusionment and unfulfilled promises, the students had lost patience.
Many had signed up for programs and paid their tuition fees firmly believing that they would be able to transfer their credits to establishments such as Georgetown University, only to find out that their diplomas had no standing in the established academic world. “As working professionals and not full-time students, we feel that some of our expectations have not been met thus far,” they wrote collectively, in a polite but angry letter to the school’s management. They got no response and decided to escalate, going to the Cantonal and Federal authorities.
Today, former Swiss Federal Councillor and two-time Swiss President Adolf Ogi, who is one of GSD’s listed alumni and the recipient of an honoris causa doctorate, downplays his relationship with the GSD. He told The G|O that his ties with the institution are superficial: “I received the award and that pretty much sums up my links to the establishment. I have received five such doctorates over the years from different institutions and it is not my role to verify the schools’ methods. Not to mention, I cannot stop these establishments from using my name for credibility.”
Colum de Sales Murphy, who founded the school back in 2004, welcomes us to the small, prefabricated building with two classrooms in the grounds of the prestigious lakeside property that is home to his establishment. The former senior UN diplomat—whose name was once mentioned as a potential successor to Kofi Annan—firmly denies any malpractice and insists that his programs are of the highest standards: “Three of the best universities in the world," he said, "Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. All of those schools are private”, he says answering his own question. “All of those schools are private. We have fought many administrative battles to build a solid university institution. We have outstanding professors on our faculty.” He insists that despite the former students’ testimonies, “GSD offers exclusive access to internships in International Geneva to all its students. We have a 96% satisfaction score. The professional success rate of our graduates is extremely high. We at GSD are proud of the contributions we have made to humanitarian needs—and to International Geneva. Why should State recognition be considered proof of our academic worth?”
SIMILAR COMPLAINTS ABOUT SWISS UMEF UNIVERSITY
The G|O also obtained a complaint letter dated October 2020 and written by three former International Affairs BA students from Swiss UMEF University. The institute’s website advertises lecturers including 2015 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ouided Bouchamaoui, former Austrian President Heinz Fischer, and former French President François Hollande.
“We were told that our degrees were recognized by public universities, but after investigating, it turns out that Swiss UMEF University has no affiliations whatsoever to the schools quoted as partners,” wrote the women, in a letter demanding full reimbursement of their tuition. “The same goes for the links listed on the website and in brochures. Our inquiries revealed that a number of them do not recognize Swiss UMEF University.”
One student from Guinea who had been struggling to support herself while furthering her education went as far as to take legal action, in the hope of exposing the school’s misleading methods. Her Geneva lawyer, Amel Merabet, sent a letter to the establishment in March 2021, before abandoning any further action. Contacted by us, Collectif de Défense (which employed Merabet at the time) explains that “no information regarding the case can be revealed, as Merabet does not work [there] anymore.”
Merabet’s former client, who feels she was cheated out of nearly 20,000 CHF, tells us that the unfair treatment of alumni extends to the school’s scholarship policy: “The students who were free from paying tuition were mostly sons or daughters of ambassadors or ministers [from] a variety of African countries. I later understood that this was the director’s way of developing his ties to important government officials who could help his business,” she alleges.
Swiss UMEF University’s director Djawed Sangdel, who has schools in Afghanistan, Armenia, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Niger, is often interviewed by local media in Geneva as an expert on Afghanistan, his home country. He dismisses the grievances of former students and staff: “We hope that you will initially identify the motive of any person who might stand behind such a claim, and verify whether it is really for the purpose of serving the public with true information, or … for the purpose of damaging our reputation by blackmailing us with baseless claims,” insists the entrepreneur.
“Our quality assurance mechanisms ensure the effectiveness of our approach towards dealing with student and staff complaints. We deal with each complaint with great responsibility, and in line with our regulations, guidelines, and our code of ethics,” Sangdel claims. “SWISS UMEF is very careful when publishing information, for the sole purpose of providing [true] information. We are very careful not to misguide anyone when publishing or providing information about our establishment. We apply the Bologna System and our ECTS credits are transferable with other institutions of higher education. However, the matter of recognizing the SWISS UMEF ECTS credits relies on the policies and regulations of the receiving institutions, and it is not up to us. On our website we [have information] about our accreditation and recognition, as well as any processes … under evaluation. Such information is quite clear to all the stakeholders … [who wish] to be better informed about the recognition of our degrees.”
The Afghan father of four, who welcomes us, wearing a suit and tie, to the school’s breathtaking headquarters at The Château d’Aïre, took over L’Institut Supérieur de Psychopédagogie (ISPP) in 2009 and changed the school’s name to Swiss UMEF University. Ever since, he’s been expanding his VIP educational business model to developing countries and using his school’s “Swiss Made” image to further his developments.
“Universities” are not his only business interest. From 2016 to 2020 Sangdel ran a company which distributes tobacco products, print, and food products to a network of local kiosks.
THE LOOSELY REGULATED ECONOMY OF HIGHER EDUCATION
Though these schools are, by law, authorized to manage their curriculums freely, the Federal Act on Funding and Coordination of the Swiss Higher Education Sector (LEHE), a new set of regulations, will soon demand that the country’s education entrepreneurs are brought into conformity with public academic standards. As of January 2023, any school in the country with the word “university” in its title will have to be certified by the Swiss government or accept a name change.
“The federal accreditation process is a long and transparent process. We are undergoing that process and hope to be successful, but that is up to the final evaluation by the experts and final decision by the Federal Accreditation Board,” Djawed Sangdel told The G|O.
Though GSD delivers university-level degrees to students, its “school” denomination will allow it to use an obvious legal loophole in terms of the new federal regulations.
According to the Cantonal department of education, the State has no authority when it comes to regulating private universities. “As of January 1st, 2016, an authorization to run such an establishment is no longer necessary and related activities fall under the free economy conditions guaranteed by the federal constitution. Conflicts must be resolved by ordinary judiciary means,” explains Pierre-Antoine Preti, communications advisor for the department.
Non-State certification, however, is another sore spot for private schools. While Swiss UMEF University has a simple Eduqua accreditation, GSD is also a member of the Swiss Federation of Private Schools (FSEP) and the Geneva Association of Private Schools (AGEP).
“The AGEP determines admission conditions and is responsible for ensuring that they are up to standards during the adhesion process. However, each school needs to dispose of a quality control system recognized by the FSEP,” writes FSEP’s general secretary Markus Fischer.
“To be a member of the AGEP, a school must have an FSEP certificate, as well as an additional recognized certificate for university-level curriculums,” Inès Kreuzer (responsible for the AGEP’s communications) informs us. “AGEP has naturally adapted its admissions criteria to the Federal Act on Funding and Coordination of the Swiss Higher Education Sector (LEHE) and will be examining the situations of its members before the deadline in January. As for conflicts between students and their boards of directors, outside of high schools, AGEP is not qualified to interfere.”
At The Graduate Institute (IHEID), which does not acknowledge any of Geneva’s private university degrees, communications director Sophie Fleury tells us she would rather not comment.
University of Geneva (UNIGE) spokeswoman Luana Nasca, meanwhile, explains that “these institutions are not recognized because they are not certified by the [only relevant] organization, ‘swissuniversities’.” For students who wish to pursue an international career, “better options are available”, she insists—such as a BA in International Relations, and several Master's programs that cover global health, EU, African or Middle Eastern studies, territorial development, environmental science, children’s rights, political science, and public management. All curriculums can be completed by internships.
FOLLOW UP: AT THE WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATION, A WAR—BOTH INSIDE AND OUT
By Jamil Chade
The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) 625-person-strong secretariat is the brain of the organization. It has no decision-making powers, its main duties being to supply impartial technical and professional support to WTO members. Reforming it was never going to be an easy task, but immediately after her nomination in March of last year, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala made that one of her main priorities.
As we reported back in February, the process has not been smooth. Three months later, the discontentment has only increased (informed sources tell The G|O), largely due by Dr. Ngozi’s continuous refusal to share the McKinsey report she is using as a roadmap for the reform. The G|O has learned that apart from a very few members of her inner circle, neither her staff nor governments have been given access to the report—a situation that has some Member States questioning her commitment to transparency.
The criticism is no longer just an internal matter. Several Missions confirmed to The G|O that only a summary of the McKinsey report has been shared with them while the full document remains confidential. In private, some diplomats have complained that not being in possession of the full audit makes it difficult for them to take an informed position on the proposed reform. Earlier this month, staff members had pinned their hopes on a Budget Committee meeting as an occasion to address, head-on, the many questions raised by the reform. That did not happen.
Diplomats and WTO watchers we talked to agree that with an important Ministerial Conference (MC) scheduled in June, now is not the time to “open the Pandora’s box of the reform” and risk diverting focus from the MC.
However, many are increasingly questioning Dr Ngozi’s management and communication style: Since her arrival at the helm of the organization a little over a year ago, Dr. Ngozi has had no less than twelve personal assistants. Two of them have requested extended sick leave, internal sources tell us.
Also on trial is her willingness to publicly “oversell” early agreements as successes. She has touted a draft proposal on the contentious patent waiver for COVID-19 brokered between India, South Africa and the US as a breakthrough, and in the process, remarkably managed to align health activists, Big Pharma and governments, who all denounced the announcement as premature. A formal text of the agreement should be circulated soon. It is expected that those countries excluded from the negotiations will voice their complaints about the deal and the way it was pushed by the WTO chief.
In addition, although it is not of Dr. Ngozi’s doing, Putin’s war and Russia’s de facto exclusion from the multilateral arena has opened a deep rift among the 164 members of the organization. Diplomats from Western countries routinely boycott meetings with their Russian counterparts. If the dynamics don’t change before June, the chances of any agreement being reached at the MC look seriously slim. “Once again, the WTO Ministerial [Conference] and failure might be walking side by side,” a Latin American diplomat told The G|O.
Today, some diplomats and trade experts are openly expressing their fears that the upheaval created by Putin’s war on Ukraine might create irreparable damage to the organization—at the very moment when the world desperately needs a functioning independent arbiter of trade.
WHAT NATO’S NORTHERN EXPANSION MEANS
By Carl Bildt*
While the likely outcome of Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine remains unclear, Russia’s aggression has already changed the European security order in important ways. The only modern European historical comparison is Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. Both cases involved large-scale unprovoked attacks on a neighboring country with the aim of eliminating it. Hitler refused to accept the existence of an independent Poland; Putin refuses to accept the reality of an independent Ukraine.
Putin’s invasion came as a profound shock to European governments. Most European leaders had played down US warnings about an imminent attack, reasoning that although Putin can be unpredictable, he was unlikely to do anything so irrational. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell had received fairly rough treatment on his first visit to Moscow in early 2021; but most European governments still believed that diplomacy could produce a more stable relationship.
That illusion was shattered on February 24, which has become Europe’s 9/11: a global and geopolitical wake-up call with two main consequences. First, military spending will increase across Europe. After years of foot-dragging, almost all European NATO members have suddenly aligned with the goal of spending at least 2% of GDP on defense. Europe’s largest economy, Germany, will add the equivalent of 0.5% of GDP to its defense spending in just one year.
Second, NATO will be strengthened in several ways. In addition to increasing its military presence in member states adjacent to Russia, the alliance is poised to add Finland and Sweden to its ranks. Both have developed their relations with NATO since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and incursions into eastern Ukraine, but now they will take the critical step of applying for formal membership.
February 24 created an entirely new security situation for Finland and Sweden, because it demonstrated overnight that Russia is in the hands of a regime that will use military force to impose its imperial designs on Europe. Since Finland fought a war with the Soviet Union in 1939-40 and had been a part of the Russian Empire for a century before 1917, the invasion of Ukraine immediately convinced its leaders to seek NATO membership.
Finland’s own fragile arrangement with the Soviet Union, and later with Russia, was one of the main reasons why Sweden, too, stayed out of NATO. Following the accession of Norway and Denmark to the alliance in the late 1940s, Sweden pursued a Cold War policy of neutrality supported by strong defense forces.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Finland and Sweden joined the European Union in 1995 and gradually deepened their defense cooperation with NATO, and thus with the United States. Full NATO membership was regarded as a potential option for some later date. But although Finnish and Swedish public opinion had become slightly more receptive to the idea, majorities were still skeptical or opposed.
But February 24 tipped the balance. While there are still domestic political processes to work through, it is now virtually certain that both countries will submit applications for membership well before the NATO summit in Madrid in late June. Public opinion has changed dramatically in recent weeks. In Sweden, all major political parties, except for the former Communist party and the dwindling Green Party, now favor membership; in Finland, all political parties from the right to the left have signaled their support. We are witnessing a political sea change, all owing to Putin’s imperial delirium.
Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO will alter the European security architecture in two important ways. First, northern Europe will acquire the capacity to coordinate substantial defense forces regionwide. Sweden and Finland will furnish NATO with important new capabilities, as already demonstrated by the regular air force training exercises that they hold with Norway. Moreover, NATO will have a greater capacity to control the Baltic Sea, and thus to support the defense of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Second, Swedish and Finnish membership will reinforce the European pillar within NATO. Both countries are proponents of developing the EU’s defense and security dimension, and of strengthening transatlantic ties, including the important security relationship with the United Kingdom. While NATO will remain the primary guarantor of territorial defense, the EU – with its broader policy arsenal – will become an increasingly important security alliance, and coordination between the two will deepen.
An important development to watch will be Denmark’s June 1 referendum to lift restrictions on the country’s participation in EU security and defense policies. These constraints are remnants of controversies from the early 1990s, and Denmark – along with Sweden – has already committed to increasing its defense expenditure to 2% of GDP.
Taken together, these steps will substantially strengthen the entire Nordic-Baltic region’s defense potential. A stronger defense will remain crucial as long as the Kremlin remains on its current course. But northern Europeans also must take care not to provoke Russia, which has important resources and economic hubs close to Sweden and Finland. St. Petersburg is Russia’s second-largest city and a major industrial zone; and the Kola Peninsula is the site of Russian submarine bases and other facilities, as well as the world’s single-largest concentration of nuclear weapons.
Russian leaders describe their imperial project as a “life or death struggle.” Taking that characterization seriously, Finland and Sweden no longer view NATO membership as a strategic choice. Since February 24, it has become an existential imperative.
*Carl Bildt is a former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden.
©️ Project Syndicate, 2022.
Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - Sarah Zeines
Guest Contributor: Carl Bildt
Editorial Assistance: Ciara O'Donoghue
Editing: Dan Wheeler