If you find yourself with a little more time to read over the next few weeks while social distancing or self-isolating, then – after you have read and re-read HEPI’s recent output – may I recommend The Professor and the Parson by Adam Sisman?
It is a biography of Robert Peters, who spent much of his life impersonating academics, displaying a keen desperation to don the cloak of a theologian.
I found the story by accident, while succumbing to the dangerously expensive habit of browsing in Daunt’s. There were positive reviews in many national newspapers (including The Times, Telegraph, Daily Mail and Guardian) and religious outlets (like The Church Times) when the book came out last year, but it received less interest in higher education.
That’s a pity. For while the author says his goal is ‘to entertain, not to instruct’, people working in higher education may also find the story instructional.
The very start starts at the very end, with Peters’s death certificate. We are told:
The dead man’s name was given as Robert Peters. He was described as a retired university lecturer. The certificate gives his date of birth as 11 August 1928, which made him seventy-seven at the time of his death.
But, as Sisman laconically notes, ‘None of these details was true.’
Peters’s life story is extraordinary.
Born as Robert Michael Parkins in 1918, he was ordained as a priest during the Second World War. His licence to practise was withdrawn two years’ later but this didn’t stop him from spending the next couple of decades working in schools, for the Church of England and as a tutor at the College of Wooster in Ohio, among other posts. During this time, he was deported from Switzerland for failing to pay a hotel bill, arrested for illegal entry to the US and then deported and sentenced to six months in prison back in the UK after issuing a false cheque.
But, in 1957, he finally made it to Magdalen College, Oxford, as a postgraduate student, though only by falsely claiming to have a degree from London. As he applied so late in the process, some of the formalities were unfortunately overlooked. Expelled two years later, he moved on to numerous short-lived positions (and also managed to earn a genuine MA from the University of Manchester).
In the short period from 1982 to 1988, he turned up as:
- a senior lecturer at Uyoi College of Education in Nigeria;
- Rector of the Anglican church of Virginia in the Orange Free State in South Africa;
- Director of Post-Ordination Training for Bloemfontein;
- lecturer at the Federal Theological Seminary in Edendale, Natal; rector of Vryheid; and
- lecturer at a small Bible college in Hebron, near Pretoria.
In the late 1980s, he set himself up as the Principal of ‘Cambridge Religious Studies Centre’, which gained accreditation from the University of Hull, until that was withdrawn, and then by De Montfort, until they too withdrew. He then moved the college to be near Huntingdon and then to Oxford, where it was renamed Monkfield College, and then on to Lincolnshire.
There, he tried to secure accreditation from the University of Sheffield, which sent a senior team to inspect the college in 1999. The visit was a disaster – there were next to no students, as it was claimed teaching was mainly ‘by telephonic communication’, and the accounts could not be found. On the journey back, the inspection team had to stop as ‘they were laughing so much by what they had seen that they had to pull over into a lay-by.’ This didn’t stop threats of legal action from being made against them afterwards.
Nor did it stop Peters gaining accreditation from the University of Wales, Lampeter, though this too was soon withdrawn. Apparently, Monkfield then began to work with Kensington University, Hawaii, whose alumni included Kim Il-Sung of North Korea.
The story’s many weaving paths are sometimes hard to follow because Peters’s numerous roles routinely led to his exposure as a fraud and a quick dash to another post, sometimes another country and often into the arms of a different woman.
Counting Peters’s romances is as hard as counting the Prime Minister’s children. Even the author is uncertain of how many times Peters ‘married’ – the speech marks denoting inveterate bigamy, for which he was once arrested and charged. But it was clearly close to Zsa Zsa Gabor levels.
Perhaps, in the end, the book is just an amusing piece of history (or, in some areas – such as Peters’s attitude to women – an unamusing piece of history). May be it could never happen again.
Or perhaps it actually provides a lesson for higher education regulators today. Although he never misses an opportunity to highlight the absurd, the author is clear that the story is not just a piece of historical whimsy. In a footnote on page 188, he explains it could all happen again:
On hearing the story of Robert Peters, people invariably comment that ‘it couldn’t happen nowdays, in the age of the internet’. The evidence suggests otherwise: fraudsters and bigamists seem to be as active today as they have ever been. Indeed such miscreants may benefit from the current cant about ‘confidentiality’ and ‘transparency’, causing employers to be more reluctant than they were in the past to provide frank testimonials … Peters himself continued his deceptions into the digital era.
Indeed, he got away with this schtick for decades, from the 1940s to the 2000s. At one point in the early 1980s, he even managed to get the BBC to let him appear on Mastermind, answering questions, not altogether successfully, as a ‘Minister of Religion’ on the ‘Life and Times of Archbishop William Temple’.
Years after Peters died, the Guardian reported that ‘there are more than twice as many bogus universities in the UK as genuine ones – higher than anywhere else in Europe.’ So perhaps we need oversight bodies like the QAA and the Office for Students, and sources of information like the Higher Education Degree Datacheck (‘the UK’s official degree verification hub’), after all?