Pitfalls of paper chase

  • Education
  • Sunday, 09 May 2004

By Jamie Khoo and Hariati Azizan

Dear Applicant,You have been approved for your degree from Hartford University. Delivery of your graduate package will be about 21 days from your payment date. Congratulations and good luck in your future endeavours.Best Regards,Jeff CollinsAcademic Advisorwww.custom degrees.com 

Anyone with an email account will have been inundated with spam e-mail advertising express PhDs or MBAs. But for every genuine programme there will be five fake ones.  

StarEducation decided to check out why these websites still thrive despite global clampdown. We visited a website which promises a degree within 30 days. All we had to do was fill out a simple form (for which we gave false details). We chose to graduate in July 2004 with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature.... 

BORDERLESS EDUCATION: As online and distance learning degrees become increasingly popular, quality control of courses and credibility of institutions becomes harder to monitor. Students mustcheck the accreditation and credentials of universities or online programmes they are applying to.

The next day, another email arrived from the company, confirming approval of our application and upon payment, Jackie Hoo (the pseudonym used) would officially be a Hartford University graduate. Within 21 days of payment, it adds, we would receive a graduate package which includes an official college diploma in a padded embossed diploma cover, official transcripts, access to the university website, alumni information, and verification services.  

Sounds crazy in this, errm, IT-savvier generation? Do a search on the Internet and you will be surprised at the number of such institutions still thriving.  

A quick phone call to the Malaysian-American Commission on Education Exchange (Macee) informed us that in fact, this Hartford University was not accredited by any of the US Department of Education approved regional accrediting bodies.  

Though accreditation through official and government approved bodies is vital for verifying quality standards and recognition of universities, scam companies or institutions are still continuously finding new ways of getting around this. After all, education is a hugely lucrative business, and like any business it has to adapt to survive. If customers are now more discerning, the providers are even more so.  

WISEN UP: It is important to go for counselling with bodies like JPS, MACEE, IDP Education Australia or the BritishCouncil or conduct thorough research if you are unsure of the credibility of your chosen institution.

We visited another university website which claims to be accredited by the Educational Quality Accrediting Commission (EQAC), given under the authority of the European Union. We found the EQAC website; however, the embassy of the home country of the said university denies knowledge of either the institution or the accrediting body.  

Says a source from the Education Ministry's Private Higher Education Department (JPS), it is easy to claim accreditation and partnership as many universities cannot keep track of the existence of all fake universities. “They are also getting slicker. If before they would use some clearly fake location, such as Golden State University in Wyoming, California, and link it to some bogus accreditation body, now they will link it to websites of credible partner universities and accreditation bodies.”  

According to him, JPS once received a complaint from Honolulu University – a recognised and accredited university in the US – denying claimed alliances with a fake academic centre in Malaysia called Charmont Graduate Programme. Another favourite strategy is to move to distant lands, like the British Virgin Islands. “This seems to be the education hotspot at the moment,” he quips. 

Worse, this phenomenon is not confined to obscure institutions. 

In May last year, a “Dr Yew Soon” who claimed to have four doctorates, an MBA and an MSc, was appointed as chief scientist at a local technology company. This Dr Yew Soon had doctorates from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cornell University, University of Lausanne and University of Oklahoma but upon investigation, StarIntech found out from the respective universities that the PhD subjects he claims to have undertaken were not offered there, or that there was not even any record of attendance of this man.  

Claiming to have six postgraduate qualifications would perhaps seem to be a bit farfetched but there is a hungry population of paper-chasers out there. And as the economic theory goes, when there is demand, there will be supply.  

The Loopholes 

Educational agencies such as Macee recommend that students choose to study in schools accredited by one of the six regional bodies recognised by the US Department of Education. Universities which are not accredited by these regional bodies risk not being recognised or accepted by other universities or employers.  

However, Macee executive director Dr Donald McCloud points out that anyone can start up a company in any state within the US for a minimal fee (about US$50) and use it as a base from which to operate their “university”.  

“Someone could set up a company called Hula-Hula University Inc., for example, and just drop the 'Inc' part when they're advertising their courses,” he explains. “These 'universities' are set up as corporation, not as a university. They can claim that they are registered by their state but don't be fooled by this. They are legally registered, but only as a corporation, and that doesn't mean anything in terms of education. 

“Also, it's very easy in the US to set up online websites with a credit card. In both these cases, they often don't even need a telephone and can just operate with a post office box address.”  

However, although authorities within the US are starting to clamp down on these fraudulent universities, action is only being taken on a state level.  

MCCLOUD: 'The critical issue is accreditation: Universities in the US should be accredited by one of the six regional accrediting bodies around America to be recognised by other education institutions, or employers.'

It follows that when a bogus company masquerading as a university is shut down in one state, it moves on to another state and sets up shop there.  

Often, trick universities claim to be an outstation or offshore representative of a particular university, or claim to be operating overseas while they are based in a country such as the US.  

Matthew Evans, of the Australian High Commission in Malaysia, says although there are organisations offshore which claim to be representing an Australian institution that is not accredited or has no affiliation with a real university, the Australian authorities are limited in what they can do within these countries. 

“If, for example, it is legal for them to operate as a corporation within that country, there is little we can do to stop them or shut them down. We can only work with the authorities within the country to alert them about these false claims,” adds the counsellor for the education, science and training department. 

Alternatively, some bogus institutions operate through a provider which advertises degrees from an Australian institution, even though the actual university hasn't heard of it.  

Evans points out that there is also an Education Services for Overseas Students Act which maintains quality control standards on an international basis. Institutions which wish to advertise themselves or their courses overseas must be registered under this act, if not the advertising abroad is deemed illegal. 

“We have to monitor advertising very carefully - to check whether they do actually have an affiliation and whether the real institutions are actually offering those courses, for example,” said Evans. 

“The problem is that fraudulent cases like this can do a lot of damage to the Australian image even though real Australian universities might have nothing to do with it.”  

Third secretary at the Irish Embassy, Micheal Smith admits that it is the same case in Ireland. “If these fake colleges register as companies, they are beyond the jurisdiction of the Department of Education and Science (Ireland’s version of Education Ministry). The Government can’t monitor the quality of the operation, what more to shut it down.” 

Citing a case, he explains that although complaints have been received about an institution falsely claiming to be Irish, the embassy is powerless. 

“What we know is that they are not even based in Ireland. We don’t recognise it as an Irish university but we won’t say that it is a fake entity either – it is a registered company and therefore a legal company. All we can do is inform enquirers that it is not a recognised Irish university and direct them to the proper directories if they are interested in studying in Ireland,” says Smith. 

Taking Measures 

Foreign education authorities are keen to stress the importance of ensuring that your chosen institution is properly accredited or recognised by a government body and they warn of the dangers of pursuing degrees with unaccredited universities.  

The process is slightly more complicated in America as the accreditation process there is not universally controlled by a government body.  

McCloud says universities in the US should be accredited by one of the six regional accrediting bodies around America to be recognised by other education institutions or employers.  

These regional bodies are recognised by both the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the US Department of Education (USDE). However, the constituent member universities within the regional accrediting bodies themselves monitor the quality control standards and criteria for granting accreditation to universities.  

Macee coordinator for educational advising services Marlene Zeffreys alerts students to the fact that many universities claim to be accredited by various independent bodies (Unesco or professional accounting bodies, for example). However, the regional accrediting bodies hold the most weight and are what students should be looking out for.  

Accreditation is particularly important among American universities as accredited universities or potential employers often do not accept transfers from non-accredited universities.  

“You don't want to spend four years doing your first degree in a non-accredited university, and then find out that your degree is not accepted by a university where you want to pursue your masters,” says McCloud.  

Theoretically, you could spend four years working hard for what you think is a credible degree. But if that particular institute is unaccredited, you fall in the same category as the truly con 'universities', also unaccredited of course, which are selling degrees over the Internet for a nifty exchange of your credit card details.  

Exercising Choice 

However, a distinction must be made between legal and accredited degrees, the latter more likely to be recognised or approved by respective governments and meet certain standards of quality in education.  

Employers themselves are wising up. Zeffreys notes that companies often ring up Macee to check the accreditation status of universities from which their employees claim to have graduated from.  

Employers are exercising greater precaution when recruiting new employees. Jobstreet.com head of communications Chong See Ming explains that while the checking process may not be as vigorous for candidates' basic qualifications, employers are more vigilant when it comes to higher qualifications, particularly for positions of a senior level.  

“We have helped many clients place top candidates in senior management as well as senior technical or research and development positions. And each time, we cannot stress enough the importance of the reference check, both on the recruiters’ end and at the human resources' end, pending the final hiring decision.” 

She adds that employers are fully urged not only to check applicants' qualifications but also their references, their career progression, performance and any recurring problems or issues.  

“Let's say you apply with a fake degree and you get in and manage to really prove yourself in the job. However, if they find out that you have lied, it won't matter how many years you have been with the company or how well you have done. You will lose all your credibility and you'll be out,” concludes Chong. 

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