An American authority on university degrees wants New Zealand to make it a crime to issue or purchase unapproved educational qualifications, after putting New Zealand on its list of countries that churns out "fake" degrees.

The Oregon Office of Degree Authorisation has named four institutions it says are operating out of New Zealand - Presscott University, University of Honiara, University of Honorius and the University of Newlands - as being either degree mills or lacking in any authority to issue degrees.

"The [New Zealand] Government needs to publish and maintain a list of approved degree-granters. If it isn't a crime to issue an unapproved degree in or from New Zealand, it should be," the authority's administrator, Alan Contreras, told the Herald.

In New Zealand, it is not illegal to issue or buy fake degrees, but purchasers who use them could face fraud charges, police here said.

The term "degree mill" refers to "substandard or fraudulent colleges that offer potential students degrees with little or no serious work".

These range from either degrees that can be purchased outright, or those that require some nominal work from the student but not at the level of study normally required for a degree.

Mr Contreras said New Zealand hadn't been named a "top country for fakes". The worst were the US, Belgium, the UK and some African, Southeast Asian and Pacific nations.

"I suspect that New Zealand's connections to the Pacific Islands cause some of the fakes to flow to the country," he said.

A spokesman for the NZ Vice-Chancellors' Committee said there was little that could be done to stop online degree mills as it was an international issue. He said contact details for "fake" universities usually led back to a mail box or email address.

To become a university in NZ, an institute must be recognised by the Qualifications Authority and the committee on university academic programmes. "The university name is protected under the Education Act, but it is hard to prosecute when they are based offshore."

He said if employers were unsure if a degree or institution was recognised, they should contact the university directly. "More than anything it is a matter of common sense."

- ADDITIONAL REPORTING: Kara Segedin

* A picture previously carried on this story showing Victoria University graduates was not relevant to the story. There is no link between the university or the students pictured and 'fake' degrees.