My education: Knightsbridge University, Denmark

Knightsbridge University was a private distance learning university that was based for most of its history in Denmark.

The history of the University can be divided into two separate phases, consisting respectively of its foundation and first few years, and then the post-1991 Danish-owned era. Knightsbridge University was initially established as a private university in England in 1986 by a group of businessmen who also operated the University de la Romande. In 1988, the Education Reform Act effectively banned private universities in the United Kingdom, but continued to allow foreign private institutions to operate there providing they did not represent that their degrees were UK degrees. Degrees issued by United Kingdom private universities prior to 1988, including those issued by Knightsbridge University, therefore have the same legal status as any other public or private degree issued in the UK before that date.

The second phase of the University’s history began when Danish businessman Henrik Fyrst Kristensen and his English business partner registered Knightsbridge University in Denmark in 1991. In 1993, Kristensen acquired sole control of the University, and became its President (subsequently Vice-Chancellor). Kristensen was a veteran of the Royal Danish Navy and has owned and managed various  trading and import-export companies.

Under Kristensen’s leadership, Knightsbridge University underwent a complete revision designed to position it as an elite private European institution whose offering, according to its explanatory materials, was of “high quality programmes to high calibre candidates, aiming for a global market.” This also meant a strongly business-oriented outlook at a time when this was less usual in academia than it has subsequently become. Knightsbridge University presented a direct and straightforward path to earning a degree, emphasising flexible routes for experienced adults, and its presentation was both well-written and understated. When a website came along in due course, it was notable for its unfussy design and economy of style, rather in keeping with a modern Scandinavian aesthetic.

Throughout the time of Knightsbridge University’s operation there, Denmark’s education system permitted the existence of higher education institutions in the private sector that were wholly self-regulating, as had the United Kingdom prior to 1988. There was no legal restriction on the use of the title of university nor on the award of degrees. Such accreditation systems as were available were directed purely at the obtaining of state funding. No accreditation was available for a private institution that did not seek to make its students eligible for state study grants.  Nor was Knightsbridge University the only private degree-granting institution in Denmark; that sector included several well-regarded business schools. In my view, the application of the term “unaccredited” to such institutions is entirely incorrect. Such a term would only be applicable where there was accreditation available; otherwise it criticizes an institution for not having something that does not actually exist. It was not until 2018, a decade after Knightsbridge University had ceased activity, that Denmark legislated to prevent private organizations from using the title “university” (University Act, section 33a); at the time of writing there still remains no prohibition on private organizations granting degrees.

From time to time, the status of private universities and their degrees was raised with the Danish government. In the Answer to Question no. 103 from the Committee on Science & Technology on 20 March 2003 to the Minister for Science, Technology & Innovation (L125 – appendix 77 (later also called Appendix 96)), the then Minister made it very clear that “…neither the current nor the proposed future legislation gives any possibility for the approval of private providers of education. Such education is provided without state funding and thusly are equal to the courses which [state] universities may offer without state funding and which also need not be nor can be approved by the Ministry…” In a statement explicitly addressing Knightsbridge University, the Danish government qualifications authority CIRIUS stated, “Private institutions without public funding may operate legally without approval or accreditation by Danish authorities. However, if they want to make their students eligible for state study grants they must abide by an accreditation procedure. No state study grants are available for ‘Knightsbridge University’ clients.”(1) In its statement, CIRIUS therefore explicitly acknowledged that Knightsbridge University was legally permitted to operate as a private higher education provider in Denmark. The accreditation procedure referenced in the statement that allowed access to state study grants was a limited scheme for private institutions that was not available for the distance learning degree programmes that made up the entirety of Knightsbridge University’s provision.

Consequently, degrees issued by Knightsbridge University in Denmark are legally issued Danish degrees, with exactly the same legal status as degrees from private accredited providers or indeed Danish state universities, even though they are not part of the Danish state higher education system. They are covered by the Lisbon Convention on the recognition of credentials in Europe, which was signed by Denmark in 1997 and ratified in 2003.

Kristensen’s achievements at Knightsbridge University were considerable. He assembled a body of adjunct faculty and examiners that extended to some three hundred persons, many of whom also served on the faculty of traditional universities. These were augmented by a number of Knightsbridge’s own graduates. The range of programmes was wide and included a number of unusual and niche subjects, such as bibliotherapy and military studies; the University was one of the first to offer a degree in martial arts. Academic standards were strengthened, with internal quality assurance measures and the input of external faculty key to the maintenance of program comparability with “the quality and content expectations one might have of a better-reputed representative of ‘the establishment’.” From the outset, Knightsbridge University had attracted some high achievers, and Kristensen would come to include several members of royal families, government ministers, public and private sector leaders, and individuals of significant achievement who did not always fit into the traditional model of academia. The University gained a reputation for quality over quantity. It was selective in accepting applications, and the reports of a number of graduates indicated that they had found their programs both demanding and worthwhile.

It was clear that what was on offer at Knightsbridge University was significantly different from the low-quality product available from some other private distance-learning universities, and there were a number of reports of graduates using a Knightsbridge degree as the basis for further study in mainstream universities. A Knightsbridge master’s degree was positively evaluated by the German state evaluator of foreign credentials. The Bachelor and Master of Business Administration programmes achieved validation by the Hungarian state university Debrecen Agricultural University, and several specialist Bachelor and Master of Laws degrees were accredited by the UK Association of Lawyers and Legal Advisors. A dual award agreement established that holders of the Knightsbridge Bachelor of Arts in English and in Spanish could obtain the same degree from the state Evangelical University of Paraguay.

In 2004, Kristensen was asked by me to comment on the principles and mission of Knightsbridge University, and replied as follows,

The purpose is to be and remain independent of influence by external authorities. We wish to retain the right to decide what we offer, to whom, where and when. We do not wish to be dictated specific entry or gender quotas, minimum or maximum student numbers, academic year dates, exam dates, or anything else. This desire for total autonomy determines our range of options relative to external bodies. In short, we have no options.

Summing up, our approach is a pragmatic one, albeit one solidly supported by both philosophy and dogma. We have identified and reasonably accurately described a potential market segment, and have developed products and processes to serve this segment. We have been quite successful in attracting highly accomplished individuals to our programmes, individuals for whom the award pursued with us is not necessarily the pinnacle of their life so far, but most often simply one of many milestones in the life of a high achiever.

The quality and integrity of our programmes and provision is borne out by the high number of candidates referred by graduates or other candidates. When people in senior positions in their respective organisations, people used to reviewing options, competent at sorting the wheat from the chaff, contact us on the basis of recommendation by their colleagues, there is no better feeling.(2)

In 1993, Kristensen decided to relocate from Denmark to the United Kingdom. This involved some changes to the University’s registration, since it was necessary to operate under the legal framework for foreign degree-granting institutions that then applied in England, and it would not be possible to maintain the University’s status in Denmark. As a transitional measure, the University had been incorporated in Liberia for a few months in 1993, before incorporation in the Commonwealth nation of Antigua and Barbuda later that year. For several years after the relocation, a European Branch Office was maintained, initially in commercial premises in Torquay and latterly at the Grade II listed Victorian clifftop house there that also served as Kristensen’s home. Alongside the University’s programs at degree level, Knightsbridge College operated from Scotland as a parallel institution offering non-degree courses between 1999 and 2004. After its closure, its courses were offered as part of a turnkey package to budding educational entrepreneurs.

It was believed that some form of governmental recognition would be helpful to Knightsbridge students and graduates. Accordingly, the University made application to the authorities in Antigua and Barbuda, and was granted approval status by its Cabinet in August 1995. Unfortunately, the University then became the centre of a political row, with senior civil servants in the Antiguan Ministry of Education denouncing the Cabinet’s decision to approve the University and failing to confirm its accreditation to enquirers, despite the relevant records and documents from the Cabinet being readily available.

With the new century came the return of the administration from the United Kingdom to Spentrup in Denmark, where the University was registered once more in 2002. It was noted that some graduates held that the University’s private status in Denmark was more prestigious than the Antiguan recognition in any case. In Spentrup, the University again was administered from a home office, and Kristensen said of the approach to facilities, “We do not have to spend enormous amounts on infrastructure, or maintain most of the overheads held by residential institutions. This means we can keep our fees at a reasonable level, even if we receive no forms of funding or grants.”(3)

While there remained a strong element of hostility towards Knightsbridge University and its graduates from those opposed to private sector higher education, there was also some progress to report. Writing in Bears’ Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning at the turn of the century, Dr John Bear said “It is hard not to like Knightsbridge”.(4)

I first came into contact with Knightsbridge University when I answered its website advertisement for new faculty. At the time I was coming to the end of my time in college teaching and looking to explore other career options more suited to my ideology and abilities. I passed the appointment process for the position of adjunct professor and began a long and friendly correspondence with Henrik Fyrst Kristensen. In 2004, I was appointed Dean of the Department of Music, a position I would hold until 2008, and developed a suite of innovative degree and diploma programmes that offered not only the assessment of research and written assignments but also that of applied music in the form of composition and performance.

I corresponded with Dr Wally Willies regarding some of the University’s philosophy and approach. Wally had been head of department at a South African university and earned his doctorate at Knightsbridge. He continues to be a friend and colleague to this day. I found some of his comments particularly pertinent,

Cioran wrote ‘for a writer, university is death’, and I applaud that remark. Fortunately, institutions like KU help a writer to sharpen the claws of creativity, because, somewhere along the line, battle you will. Almost certainly, someone will want to throw mud for their own reasons. If you have the strength and the persistence, you will begin to notice the difference between the cart-horses and the Camargue horses of intellect. I have stopped believing that intellect has any great leadership over our other abilities, but I still feel strongly that engaging in educative activity will bring change, which is the hallmark of growth. A senior degree means that you take on your context, not find your niche…

What I’m saying, I suppose, is that there  is a price to be paid for intellectual freedom, and whether it is worth it, is a matter of individual reality.

My own pithy summary is that, for me, it is better to pay a lot of money to be recognized for meaningful sweat, than to pay a lot of money to be recognized for meaningless sweat. KU will take you along the former rather than the latter road. Not nearly as safe, but a lot more definitive. (5)

Following this, I decided to supplicate for the Doctor of Philosophy degree by published work as a faculty candidate in 2003. In a varied submission, I included work on the history and management of institutions delivering musical education, and also some work that was directly concerned with business education. Added to this was further published work concerned with music criticism and several in-depth studies of musical performances and recordings that had appeared in professional journals.

The PhD by published work is restricted at most institutions to graduates or faculty members, and at Knightsbridge University was examined at the same level as the PhD by thesis. I was assigned to Professor Reginald von Zugbach de Sugg, formerly of Paisley University, the University of Glasgow and the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. Reggie had become something of a legend among his Scottish students and was held in similarly high regard at Knightsbridge. It was not difficult to see why. He combined a remarkable breadth of expertise with charm and an utter dedication to his students. I was delighted when, after my graduation, he was willing to assist me by serving on faculty for some of my other educational projects.

From the outset of my involvement with Knightsbridge University, I was interested to know more about its people. Over the years, I spoke and corresponded with graduates and faculty, read their theses, papers and other published work, and learned of their diverse and often accomplished careers. They must form one of the most unusual and interesting bodies of institutional alumni, with a substantial proportion of high achievers, free thinkers and independent spirits. At the centre of it all was Henrik Fyrst Kristensen himself, who was exceptionally well read in education and its philosophy, and many other subjects as well; witty, humorous and on a number of occasions extremely generous.

My own educational work involved collaboration with Knightsbridge University on a number of occasions, and indeed Knightsbridge was an important support in the early days of European-American University, where a number of Knightsbridge faculty and alumni have since served as Fellows.

Without any prior announcement, the website for Knightsbridge University became unavailable in late 2008, and its Danish registration appears to have been cancelled in June 2010.

(1), retrieved November 2007.
(2, 3) Kersey, John: A case study of higher education in the private sector: an interview with Henrik Fyrst Kristensen, Vice Chancellor of Knightsbridge University, Denmark, London, Libertarian Alliance Educational Notes no. 37, 2006 ISBN 1 85637 705 9
(4) Bear, John and Mariah: Bears’ Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning, 14th edition, California, Ten Speed Press, 2000, p.220.
(5) Dr Wally Willies, email to the author, 25 August 2003.