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Fake Degrees, Real News

Why would people pay for a qualification that is so clearly not valid? Paul Greatrix looks in detail at the recent series of degree mill news stories.
This article is more than 6 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

I’ve written here before on a number of occasions about fake degrees and made up universities. Some of those discovered to have acquired fake degrees have been rather prominent politicians in Pakistan. But where to acquire a degree if you would rather not do any actual studying? Try a degree mill.

The biggest of all of the degree mills (as distinct from the equally pernicious essay mills) appears to be run by a Pakistan-based company which, according to the New York Times and the BBC among others, claims to be an IT provider but actually manages hundreds of fake university websites from which people can procure many kinds of fake degrees.

This story from April 2016 in the New York Times followed an earlier more detailed investigation by the paper  and noted in relation to ongoing investigations into the business of Axact that:

“The police found more than one million blank educational certificates and evidence of 300 fictitious educational websites, many with American-sounding names like Columbiana and Brooklyn Park, that sold fake degrees to hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Some knowingly bought effortless degrees to pad résumés or to help in immigration, and a handful have been publicly embarrassed.
Last month, Myanmar’s new finance and planning minister, U Kyaw Win, admitted that his doctorate came from Axact’s Brooklyn Park University. “Now I am ashamed to call myself a Ph.D.,” he said.”

Another politician trying to take a short cut.

For some reason everyone seemed to think that this problem had been solved, prosecutions had taken place and that all of the “institutions” on this list of fake schools, colleges and university websites compiled by the New York Times had been shut down.

But as this recent File on Four investigation by the BBC demonstrated, this Diploma Mill business is still booming and, according to the report, over 3,000 fake qualifications have been sold to individuals (and in one case a company) in the UK out of a worldwide total of 215,000 which netted a profit in excess of £37m in 2015. It seems that the investigation in Pakistan has ground to a halt “amid claims of government corruption” and sales are continuing, but now with a new twist: extortion.

The owners of the fake degrees, when contacted by the programme, seem to struggle to articulate their positions:

A trawl through the list of Axact UK buyers, seen by the BBC, reveals various NHS clinical staff, including an ophthalmologist, nurses, a psychologist, and numerous consultants also bought fake degrees.
A consultant at a London teaching hospital bought a degree in internal medicine from the fake Belford University in 2007.
An anaesthetist who bought a degree in “hospital management” said he had not used the qualification in the UK.
And a consultant in paediatric emergency medicine, who bought a “master of science in health care technology”, claimed it was an “utter surprise” when the BBC told him it was fake.
There is no suggestion any of these clinicians do not hold appropriate original medical qualifications.

What were they thinking? How can anyone be surprised that the degree they ‘earned’ by paying for it over the internet without any study is fake? How do you “not use” a fake qualification you’ve paid for?

Nixon University, mentioned in the BBC report, is still there. And, whilst Belford University is no more, there is always Belltown University which offers a similar range of courses to many of the others on the NYT list.
These websites all look rather similar. Whilst they have features of many real university websites, including lists of courses, alumni information, careers and advice lines to call, descriptions of various other services, they are really very light on actual specifics, details and actual names. And they are stuffed with stock photos of happy students. None of them appears to have a meaningful address though.

Anyway, back to the BBC report which, disturbingly, noted that a company had been active in acquiring dodgy degrees too:

Defence contractor FB Heliservices bought fake Axact degrees for seven employees, including two helicopter pilots, between 2013 and 2015.
One of these employees, speaking anonymously to the BBC, said soon after he had been given a contract to work on the Caribbean island of Curacao, the local government decided all those working in the territory had to have a degree.
Parent-company Cobham held an internal investigation into the incident, but decided the purchase was a “historic issue” that “had no impact upon the safety of any of its operations or the training of any individuals in the UK or elsewhere”.
“Procedural and disciplinary actions have been taken to address all the issues raised,” it added.

So that’s alright then, a company buying fake degrees for its employees is just fine because it happened in the past and did not have an immediate impact on safety.

But the good news is the DfE is on the case:

The Department of Education said HEDD was taking a proactive approach.
“Degree fraud cheats both genuine learners and employers, so we’ve taken decisive action to crack down on those seeking to profit from it,” a spokesman said. But Higher Education Degree Datacheck (HEDD) chief executive Jayne Rowley said only 20% of UK employers ran proper checks on applicants’ qualifications.

Rowley is right that employers have to check academic qualifications properly but HEDD is only a small verification agency and not really in a position to take on the scale of operation reported by the BBC. But things have gone even further as the BBC found out when they spoke to former FBI agent Allen Ezell, who has been investigating Axact for a long time:

Ezell said Axact continued to launch new online universities all the time – and had now branched out into extortion and blackmail.
“It’s a whole new game,” he said. “Normally a diploma mill is finished with you by the time you get your degree. That’s just the beginning now.
“You get a telephone call that looks like it’s coming from your embassy or local law enforcement, threatening to arrest or deport you unless you get some additional documents to help support the phony diploma you already have. We’ve never seen that before.”

So in order to boost their income even further it seems that the diploma mills are now extorting money from purchasers in order to “protect” them. Just extraordinary.

A recent update from University World News reports that the Pakistan legal case is expected to be up and running again soon. But, it also notes the  official response from Axact which condemned the BBC report’s “baseless accusations” and “substandard, non-factual and fallacious reporting”, which, it said, contained “defamatory false accusations”.


It said it would take legal action against the BBC, issuing a letter through its lawyers to that effect.

Axact previously said it would sue the New York Times after that paper’s original investigative report in 2015 revealed the company’s involvement in what was then described as the world’s biggest bogus degree scam, but no action was taken.

The statement though, makes no detailed mention of the fake university websites other than to say that the 2015 investigation was “merely a smear tactic by the Goons among media”. Whether or not it is Axact running the fake universities and selling bogus degrees, someone is and it does need to be stopped.

But none of this would work unless individuals believed they could cheat the system by acquiring qualifications they hadn’t actually studied for in order to gain advantage. I don’t know why people think getting a degree without working for it is legitimate or that cheating the education system is somehow acceptable. But credentials do matter. They are the real currency of higher education and we do need to protect their value and employers do need to check the qualifications of applicants. There is clearly more work to be done and let’s hope that legal action in Pakistan gets back on track. Even if that particular operation is addressed though there are plenty more to be tackled – this very recent article suggests there are over 1,000 degree mills operating in the US alone.

4 responses to “Fake Degrees, Real News

  1. Thanks Paul.

    We refer to it as the Vicious Circle of Fraud.

    Employers don’t make checks – so fraudsters buy fake degrees and get away with it. Awareness of the scale and risk of fraud remains low, so employers don’t make checks and fraud goes on.

    If all employers made checks, no fraudster with a fake certificate would get a job, so no-one buys them. Without customers, degree mills disappear and genuine graduates don’t lose out on jobs.

    The Virtuous Circle of Verification.

    There are free toolkits to download from the Hedd website to help universities and employers.

  2. Maybe universities should take the lead and crack down on Vice Chancellors with fake doctorates?

  3. Same in UK…. evidences show coruption within the DFE up to the highest level,a Ponzi scheme ,cleverly design under legitimate appearances.
    Old customised non regulated provisions are sold to the students as subdegree courses subject to top up with fully acknowdlegement of the stakeholder involved.
    Therefore,no wonder why all allegations of fraud have a dead end .
    Pearson,the faimous awarding body is selling courses outside any national framework ,old customised non regulated provisions as degree in order to access public funding.

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