Some half dozen cars are parked in the largely empty lot of the warehouse style building bearing the name SVU – for Silicon Valley University — on Fortune Drive in San Jose. A few students are trickling in to the spare lobby of the building where two admin personnel are fielding questions behind an inquiry counter. There is a rather bare library to the right of the lobby with a few shelves stacked with books, and a lone student. There is no sign of any classroom activity. Evidently, Christmas break has already begun.
Yes, Silicon Valley University exists. It has a street address, a physical entity in the form of a building, a skeletal ”faculty,” and according to two students who spoke to this correspondent, anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 students.
It also has valid credentials till 2017 as per the website of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, one of the two national accreditors of degree granting institutions recognized by the US Department of Education.
Beyond these bare facts, not much else. The 19 students who were offloaded from an Air India flight in Hyderabad on Sunday, when they were on their way to San Francisco to join Silicon Valley University in San Jose and North Western Polytechnic in nearby Fremont, were clearly coming to an educational warehouse. US authorities who alerted their Indian counterparts that the institutions are under scrutiny may have plenty outside — very little inside — to scrutinize.
The word ”dodgy” comes to mind. All but a solitary student of the 30 or so your correspondent saw on the single-building ”campus” on Monday appeared to be from India. Most of them said they are from Hyderabad and surrounding areas, and they revealed ”at least 70 per cent of the students in the university are from India.”
But they insist the college is legit, they have proper documentation and student visa, and they do attend classes – unlike in the case of ”Tri-Valley University” in Pleasanton, which was raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement for visa fraud in 2010, resulting in the conviction of its Chinese founder who was essentially running a degree and visa scam.
Hundreds of students from India were caught up in that scam and deported, losing lakhs of rupees they had spent in the hope of immigrating to America, getting an education or earning a degree being secondary to that objective.
These two universities appear to have learned a lesson or two from that episode in that they at least have a passable physical campus and classes, although even a cursory look at Silicon Valley University’s very sketchy website and meager campus will tell you it is not exactly Stanford or UC Berkeley.
Like with Tri-Valley, these two universities too have mostly students from India (mostly from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana) and faculty from China and Taiwan. The university’s founder president and academic dean Jerry Shiao was in a meeting and not available immediately.
The Silicon Valley venture capitalist who accompanied this correspondent to SVU says he has never even heard of the university in all these years (and he has seen the North Western Polytechnic building only because it is close to his house).
After we speak to a couple of students and learn they are paying $20,000 in tuition and other costs for their degree, he does a quick back-of-the-envelop calculation.
”If there are 1,500 students like these kids say, at $20,000 for a degree, that’s $30 million. Even if he’s spending $20 million, that’s still a cool $ 10 million profit every 18 months. Why didn’t I think of this before? It is such an interesting business model,” he jokes.
But for the students, it is no joking matter. News of the incoming students being offloaded from the Air India plane in Hyderabad has reached here, and they are tense. ”It has nothing to do with the university. It is because of stricter security following the Paris attack,” says a student who gives only his first name — Anil — echoing what the university has posted on its website.
”Dear SVU Applicant, Due to recent Paris attack and unseen terrorist activities, the US Customs and Border Protection are implementing stricter security measures, which is not specific to SVU but everyone entering the US,” the post on the website reads.
But another student concedes that there are too many questionable newbies coming to America with questionable documents and certificates, affecting even genuine students.
”They don’t even speak proper English. They failed the interview at immigration. That is why they were sent back,” says one student, in passable English.