Degree fraud: detection as deterrent
May 12, 2014
by Jayne Rowley at the guardianDegree fraud will remain a temptation for students unless universities and business employ adequate checks as a deterrent; With more graduates prepared to lie about their qualifications, universities have a duty to protect the honest majority – not to mention the reputation of their degrees, says Jayne Rowley the debate surrounding the impending increase in tuition fees has focused largely on the impacts on participation in higher education. But, there is an equally disturbing debate about the implications for a new generation of debt-laden graduates entering an ultra-competitive job market and the ramifications this could have on degree fraud.
In a recent study, Graduate Prospects found that almost half of students and graduates think that the rise in tuition fees would make lying about qualifications on CVs more widespread and only a third disagreed outright. In addition, two thirds said that buying a fake degree would be more tempting. When we asked students and graduates what they thought people were most likely to lie about, 47% said "grade" and 29% said "course completion" – saying that a course was completed when in reality it was only finished in part. 13% said giving a different course subject to suit a job's requirements and 11% said claiming to have a degree when they don't.
The problem is amplified by an increasing number of bogus institutions in the UK. It's never been easier to fake a professional-looking degree certificate, or to obtain one on the internet. And although it's illegal for a university or college to falsely claim that it has the power to award a degree in the UK, there are more than twice as many bogus universities in the UK as genuine ones – higher than anywhere else in Europe. Degree fraud is worrying news for higher education. Not only does it devalue a qualification from a UK institution, making a mockery of genuine students who go through our system, but it also, when unchallenged, offers an attractive alternative for a prospective fee paying student, potentially reducing the amount of funds going into higher education.
Higher education institutions further lose out when they have to spend an increasing amount of resource and money verifying qualifications. In fact, it currently costs universities more than £2m annually to fulfil degree verification requests.
In response to the problem, we have recently partnered with HEFCE and BIS, to launch a new secure online verification service to make the process easier and less costly for institutions. The Higher Education Degree Datacheck (HEDD) has been developed on behalf of UK universities and colleges.
It enables enquirers to check whether a UK university or college is, or has previously been, recognised as a degree-awarding body by the UK government. It also provides information on how each institution handles incoming degree verification enquiries, what their charges are and so on. It also flags institutions that are not recognised degree-awarding bodies in the UK. So far, it has helped us to unearth more than 130 bogus institutions, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
HEDD also offers a real-time student and graduate degree verification system, allowing registered users to check online whether job applicants have the qualifications they claim. Where possible, information provided is automatically checked and verified against university records. If an exact match isn't found, the enquiry is automatically forwarded to the university.
The system is currently being rolled out at universities throughout the country, where institutions are monitoring, auditing and reporting on all verification enquiries through their registered online account. It is also helping admissions departments verify higher education qualifications of applicants to courses and research opportunities, while university HR departments are checking qualifications for employment at the institution.
A beta version of the applicant checking service on HEDD has been running since autumn 2011. Preliminary, unconfirmed data supports previous research findings, suggesting that instances of grade inflation can happen right across the board. As the service is adopted more widely, a fuller picture of the extent of the issue will emerge.
The combination of higher fees and a difficult labour market could well make degree fraud more widespread. Fraudulent candidates play the odds, gambling – correctly in many cases – that they won't be found out. If those odds are slashed, it will act as an effective deterrent to temptation.
UK universities and business need to come together to protect the time and financial investment made by genuine students as well as the reputation of a UK education.