AT 35, businessman Francis Tan seemed to have it all – a house in the affluent Kenny Hills, a holiday home in Australia, membership at a prestigious golf club, and a social calendar which allows him to hob-nob with the who’s who of Malaysia. Yet, despite his affluence, Tan (not his real name) craved one thing – to be known as Dr Tan or Datuk Tan, so he could command respect and stand tall among the other professors, doctors, datuks and tan sris at his country club.
He found a quick and simple solution – through an advertisement he chanced upon in a magazine. RM30,000 for a PhD from a legitimate university, albeit a small one, in the United States. And so, within two months, he began introducing himself as Dr Francis Tan.
“Nobody wants to be just an encik anymore! In fact, these days, if you are just an encik or a cik or puan, you are a nobody!” Tan, err, Dr Tan told Star Education.
Owning and wearing branded items was once status symbols restricted to an elite minority, but not anymore. With more and more high income earners today, owning a luxury car is far from difficult – and anyone can get a Rolex, an imitation one that is, on the street for RM40.
Hence, more and more people are craving for titles like “Dr” or “Professor” not because they are academically inclined but because such titles carry a certain standing. Which is why you find even restaurateurs, contractors and piano teachers with PhDs.
A con job
With demand, comes supply. Because of the obsession with PhDs, many scams have surfaced, presenting prestige-seekers with a “quick-fix” – pay RM10,000 for an honorary doctorate, RM25,000 for a doctorate with a ready-made 50-page thesis, and a little more money if you want to have a title.
Recently, The Star published the scam of a Sir Col Datuk Dr Prince, a supposed titled gentleman who promised people, mainly businessmen, honorary doctorates from an Italian university for at least RM20,000.Claiming to be an adopted son of a local royal family, the 36-year-old bogus Datuk is alleged to have arranged for graduation ceremonies by renting conference rooms in hotels and hiring part-time actors to act as university deans or foreign dignitaries to award the scrolls.
Operating for two years, the conman, under the guise of a prince, a retired colonel, a relative of a Sultan and even a ''Sir'', has collected huge sums of money from businessmen willing to pay for an honorary doctorate. The businessmen were taken in by the conman's lavish lifestyle – he travelled around in a limousine, held meetings in five-star hotels and smoked cigars.
However, his shady transactions came to an abrupt end last week when he was arrested while in the midst of ripping off a 41-year-old managing director. Police recovered large amounts of fake documents purportedly issued by a university in Italy, name cards, letterheads, PhD nomination forms and certificates from the suspect's car and house.
When contacted, an Italian Embassy spokesman said the scrolls were worthless as the university or its dean did not exist. He said the embassy was aware of the conman's activities since 2000 following queries from a local Datuk and a company director over the authenticity of the awards.
Although, in this instance, many were duped by Sir Col Datuk Dr Prince, there are instances where people knowingly buy “fake” PhDs.
Says Dr Rajakrishnan Ramasamy, registrar of the Asian Institute of Medicine, Science and Technology (Aimst), “Companies, often claiming to be affiliated to a bogus university, offer these services. In many instances, you don't have to approach them. Rather, they will offer you a doctorate or some other title, for a price that is.”Being “conferred” a doctorate appeals to all kinds of people, adds Dr Rajakrishnan, from politicians to businessmen to teachers. “I know politicians, contractors and mini market owners who have procured degrees this way. Although they did not earn the titles, these people walk around proudly with their bought doctorates. They just want to have the ‘Dr’ before their names to gain people’s respect,” he says.
What's even more appalling is that some genuine universities actually sell their PhDs, shares renowned historian Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr Khoo Kay Kim.
“You can, for as low as RM25,000 buy a doctorate! Some universities, albeit small ones, in the United States advertise this in magazines as well as online. There are even brokers who promise you a professorship!
“And there are those who purchase these titles and believe they are on par with those having bona fide doctorates,” says Prof Khoo.
To those who earn their doctorates the hard way – through years of painstaking research – buying a PhD is intolerable. ''Buying PhD degrees is very unethical as this is something that should be earned. A PhD is to recognise a new area of knowledge,'' says Dr Lee Fah Onn, senior vice president of Inti College Malaysia.
The academic says he knows of friends who have received e-mails offering such degrees where the money aspect is made clear upfront.
''I have also come across advertisements in various foreign magazines which offer doctoral degrees. The ad will say that the degree requires no thesis or research but that prior learning and the individual's curriculum vitae (CV) would suffice,” adds Dr Lee.The number of rogue educational services operating is numbing.
A simple Internet search will reveal many of those now operating in the higher education black market. The problem for academics is that such sites operate within the law. They also operate in a global market almost impossible to police. In a survey by Europe's largest credit reference agency, Experian, two years ago, a fifth of companies in the United States reported that some job applicants had fabricated evidence of higher education. US authorities estimated that 300 unaccredited universities – so called “diploma mills” – now exist. Some fake schools were “awarding” as many as 500 PhDs every month. Their aggregate income was thought to be in excess of US$200mil (RM760mil) a year.
Though such figures are not yet accessible here, the trend seems to have caught on fast.
''The authorities ought to regulate this to ensure people are not conned,'' says Dr Lee.
Concurring with his view is Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (Mapcu) secretary-general Datuk Teo Chiang Liang who says the relevant authorities should do all it takes to stamp out the selling of PhD or any other types of degrees.
''Perhaps legislation should be made so that such culprits are punished,'' Teo says.
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