Complaining of worthless diplomas, former students claim they were deceived by some of Geneva’s private universities
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.
First published on April 28, 2022, this story was edited on June 23, 2022, to reflect the fact that we mistakenly reported that the Geneva School of Diplomacy does not have a partnership agreement with Georgetown University. This is incorrect.
GSD tells The G|O that it “will soon be sending another student to Georgetown” and that “one of our students just graduated from the Master’s program at Georgetown.” On its website, Georgetown University lists its partnership agreement with GSD under its “Study Abroad” plan. At time of publication, and again over the last few days, repeated requests for comment by phone and email have remained unanswered by Georgetown University.
We also erroneously wrote that Swiss UMEF owns a school in Armenia. It doesn't.
Apologies. We stand corrected.