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Sunday August 23, 2009

Dodgy degrees

PETALING JAYA: Malaysians are so caught up with degrees that many would go to any lengths for one.

And degree mills — bodies that award degrees with little or no study — are ready to hand out the awards to many who want to boost their business position, social status or political standing.

The Starprobe’s search reveals that many Malaysians are buying dubious Bachelor’s, Master’s and even Doctorates from popular degree “conferring” bodies, among them the American-based Preston Uni-versity and Newport University; Dublin Metropolitan University (DMU) and Irish International University (IIU).

Degrees for sale: An online site promoting degrees to students and prominent personalities. The site includes contact details and hotline numbers of accreditation bodies for ‘graduates’ to pass on to prospective employers for verification

Other dubious institutions which are not in recognised accreditation registries include Connaught University, Pacific Western University, American Northeast State University, Western University, European University, Hill University, Rochville University and Buxton University.

When the Starprobe team conducted a search, including on the Internet, for the “alumni” of these degree mills, the list included prominent personalities in different sectors:

Cambodian premier Hun Sen (right) receiving his honorary degree from Irish International University head, a Malaysian called Hardeep Singh Sandhu, in 2007.

> a Selangor Umno division chief who is also chairman of a local publishing group (MBA, Connaught University, UK);

> a Kedah Umno division head and Umno Supreme Council member who became a self-made millionaire after school (MBA, Preston University, US);

> a Perak DAP state assemblyman (Bachelor of Business Administration, Paramount University of Technology, US) ;

> a retired Royal Malaysian Police department director who is now serving in a government body (MBA, Newport University, US);

> a leading Chinese educationist with three PhDs (PhD, Kensington University, US);

> a celebrity motivational speaker who has set up a private college (MBA and Doctorate of Business Administration (DBA), European Business School Cambridge of European Union);

> a top entrepreneur and chairman of one of Malaysia’s leading manufacturers (DBA, Irish International University); and

> a chairman of a local IT media company who was charged with furnishing false statement to the Bursa Malaysia (Bachelor of Science in Building Construction and Management, Connaught University, Ireland; MBA, North West London University, UK; and Doctorate of Philosophy in Business Administration, Pacific Western University, US).

The questionable “qualification” is evident in the official resumes of these public figures which the Starprobe team obtained from their offices or official websites.

When contacted, some were genuinely surprised to find out that they had been duped but others evaded questions and refused to comment.

One person with two alleged doctorates did not deny receiving the bogus doctorates but simply urged Starprobe to quote his third doctorate from the Southern Cross University, Australia, which is legitimate.

All the universities mentioned claim to be accredited, but none is recognised by the national accrediting body Malaysian Qualification Agency (MQA) or its foreign accrediting partners.

The IIU was blacklisted by MQA(then known as National Accreditation Board) in July 2005.

A disturbing trend is that these dodgy institutions offer prominent personalities degrees so they can gain credibility with the “qualifications”.

This is the standard practice for many of these bogus universities, said a senior Irish academic attached to a local private university who declined to be named.

“These institutions go to another country, especially in the less developed and developing world, and offer local prominent personalities doctorates and other degrees. These are not honorary degrees but they don’t ask the VIPs for money either.

“They just invite the important people to put in a 1,500-word essay or write something about themselves, and they ‘award’ them their degrees.

“It becomes an endorsement of sorts — when the institutions get complaints from parents and students, they will simply point out the important people who have their degrees,” he explained, adding that it is prevalent because it is win-win for both parties.

“The institutions get the chance to be set up and the important people get their paper qualification.”

Republic of Ireland deputy ambassador to Malaysia Eoin Duggan highlighted another device for these universities to gain credibility.

They would invite VIPs, including politicians, to their convocations and sometimes confer on them honorary degrees.

“Their presence gives the ceremony importance. Having, say, a junior minister’s name on their list meanwhile would add credibility to the institution’s name,” he said.

For example, IIU’s previous honorary luminaries include a senator who is famous for championing minority rights, the president of one of Barisan Nasional’s component parties and the director of a local think tank.

Although most have wised up and dropped the dubious qualification from their resume, a few still list it in their academic credentials.

Education blogger Tony Pua believes that half of those holding bogus degrees knew that their “qualifications” were not bona fide.

“It lends credence to the university to have VIPs on their list. But if you can get a doctorate without doing any research, it is a fake one. It is impossible to get a credible doctorate via a long distance learning programme, especially if you are studying part-time,” said Pua, the Petaling Jaya Utara MP.

British Council Malaysia Education and Programmes Director Peter Clack agrees, pointing out that a degree is intended to reward academic excellence and requires hard work and commitment as that is what gives it its value with employers.

“If a degree course sounds too good to be true, then it is more than likely to be a bogus one,” he said.

Unfortunately, there is nothing much that authorities can do to stamp out this fraudulent practice.

Although the respective governments are aware of these dubious institutions, they have not been able to fully eliminate them as many are legitimately registered as business entities or exist mainly in the virtual world.

Many can only advise the public about the “bogus” institutions, like Ireland, which is distancing itself from the institutions claiming to be Irish.

However, these “bogus” bodies are experts in evading authorities; further checks revealed that IIU had changed its name to Isles International University. It has even maintained an international office in Petaling Jaya.

The degree mill issue has become such that the United Nations declared a war on this worldwide industry of fraudulent qualifications in June.

Calling it “an emerging academic corruption”, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) has issued a guideline for countries around the world to help eradicate these degree mills.

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Duped by rogue college