What can be done in the fight against fake degrees?

Did you hear about the time a black cat named Colby was awarded an MBA?

No, Colby wasn’t a super-intelligent wonder-cat. He was simply used as an experiment by investigators who paid US$299 for a degree from a Texas-based diploma mill. They claimed when submitting the online application that Colby had work experience including babysitting and a paper route. Within days, the six-year-old cat was awarded a masters of business administration and ready to enter the world of work.

As a shadowy industry operating under the radar, it can be very difficult to determine the size and scope of the problem, but there are undoubtedly thousands of diploma mills operating around the world making billions from their customers. Several of these businesses operate right here in Australia and New Zealand, although it can be difficult to verify their location. The challenge has been exacerbated by the rise of virtual universities that are hard to distinguish at a glance from online diploma mills.

Why are fake degrees a problem?

The rise of fake degrees threatens to lower the value of genuine academic qualifications. They put employers at risk of reputational damage and can place lives in danger if somebody is working in a high-risk field without the proper training, such as engineering or healthcare. The risk can occur with employees at all levels from junior staff to senior executives.

People purchase fake degrees for several reasons – perhaps they can’t afford university fees (or don’t want to take on a HELP loan), don’t have time for a full-length course of study, or they didn’t receive the grades required to graduate. Others will seek a degree in order to apply for a specific job or to gain social status.

The fake degree problem comes in several forms, including:

  • Diploma mills: Fraudulent businesses that claim to be legitimate higher education institutions and award certifications for a fee without evaluating any student’s “work”. Some mills blatantly advertise fake certifications, while others make the pretence of running a very basic assessment process.
  • Accreditation mills: These organisations are fake quality assurance agencies that exist to provide degree mills with bogus accreditation.
  • Forgers: Organisations that produce fake certificates that are purported to be from genuine, accredited universities all over the world. The rise of sophisticated photoshopping tools means individuals can produce forgeries themselves without reaching out to a “professional” forger.

What can be done in the fight against fake degrees?

The diploma mills challenge has been labelled a “wicked problem” because they’re multi-national, very difficult to police and feed what appears to be an insatiable demand for their product.

However, there are some strategies that will make an impact in the ongoing battle against fake degrees.

Legal penalties

Two legal approaches involve penalising or punishing issuers of fake degrees and punishing their customers. The wisdom is that rather than attempting to police hard-to-catch diploma mills or forgers, it is more effective to pursue strategies that will reduce the market for bogus degrees.

As the ABC Law Report points out, document forgery in Australia is serious enough to land people in prison. This happened to a Western Australian MP and former police officer, who applied for the police role with forged degrees purported to be from two UK universities. He was sentenced to three years’ jail.

Similarly, a Victorian-based school principal served a three-month suspended sentence after it was revealed he falsified his qualifications to gain employment as a teacher 24 years earlier.

Australia is also cracking down on unaccredited usage of the word “university” to help stamp out the ever-growing number of fake providers claiming to be genuine tertiary institutions.

Educating employers on how to spot red flags

The best way to certify a qualification is to use a background checking service provider who will confirm directly with the issuing organisation. But as an initial step, employers can protect themselves by training CV evaluators to look out for red flags that could suggest a diploma mill. These include:

  • Institutions that you have never heard of or with similar names to well-known universities.
  • No academic requirements for the certificate.
  • Degrees awarded solely on factors such as “life experience”.
  • Fast turnarounds for degrees, often as quick as 30 days.
  • A suspicious accreditation from an agency that you have never heard of.

Don’t rely on physical documents only

Hi-tech physical document security features range from thermochromic ink to watermarks, holograms, micro-text, QR coding and more. Security is getting more sophisticated, but so are forgers who are often as tech-savvy as the organisations they are attempting to defraud.

The issue is that relying on sighting a candidates’ certificate only shows you half of the puzzle. The other half can only be confirmed by checking directly with the issuing organisation.

Technology solutions

UNESCO believes document verification technologies are the key to fighting degree mills and bogus certifications, stressing the importance of simplifying checks. Technological routes include:

  • Online degree verification systems that integrate with the trusted databases of issuing organisations.
  • Blockchain based verification to create “digital trust” in the authenticity of a certificate.
  • The trend towards digital identity could eventually mean that verified and trusted education qualifications from kindergarten to university level could be stored in a user’s digital wallet and shared with employers when needed.

How CVCheck’s Qualification Check works

Able to be requested by both employers and job seekers, CVCheck’s Qualification Check will verify if an individual holds a qualification or trade certificate directly with the issuing organisation and will obtain the following details:

  • Individual’s name the qualification or certificate is held in
  • Name of the issuing organisation or institution
  • Name of the qualification or certificate obtained
  • Date the qualification or certificate was obtained

This check provides employers with the confidence to make better hiring decisions by confirming that the individual they’re looking to recruit holds a relevant qualification or certificate.

In addition, a Qualification Check enables job seekers to prove to prospective employers that they hold a relevant academic qualification, trade certificate or other recognised training certificate. Qualifications or certificates can be obtained from various institutes include TAFE, Universities, Registered Training Organisation (RTO’s) and Private Colleges. These can include Certificates, Diplomas, Bachelor/Master Degrees, First Aid Certificates and Online/Short Courses.

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