Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Duff degrees

My recent reading on trips to and from a client has included the very informative and entertaining Degree Mills by “FBI Agent Allen Ezell (Retired) and John Bear PhD”.  It makes interesting reading, particularly alongside the news item last week about the government’s “crackdown on fake degrees”.
A good book. ISBN 978-1-61614-507-1

It seems that BIS has asked HEDD - Higher Education Degree Datacheck - “to proactively address issues concerning bogus institutions and the misuse of the word ‘university’ as well as to tackle the related area of degree fraud. It aims to reduce the burgeoning number of unaccredited institutions by increasing prosecutions through investigation and awareness-raising.”

The word University is a protected term within UK trade law, meaning, broadly, that if you use it without actually being a university you are liable for some sort of trouble. Exactly what trouble varies, as enforcement is usually down to trading standards teams within local authorities.

Compare this with the USA, where University is not a protected term, but those who run degree mills, when prosecuted, are prosecuted for fraud, with lengthy prison sentences.

Ezell and Bear’s book shows that there’s a real problem in the USA – with different approaches in individual states, and no monopoly accrediting body. Indeed, one of the interesting things that seems to be happening is that as well as degree mills (that is, organisations which sell degrees without requiring academic work) there are now also accreditation mills – fake accrediting agencies which give a veneer of respectability to degree mills.  And of course these can be one and the same operation.

The UK’s infrastructure in this respect is strong – the QAA does provide a good check on standards, and the Privy Council via HEFCE, is jealous of the term university. But there’s no room for complacency: the growth in private providers means that knowing all the UK degree awarders becomes more difficult, and if you’re not in the sector, how easy is it to tell if a place is a university?

The UK can be a plausible base for such operations: Ezell and Bear list institutions of which they are suspicious (25 pages of them in their book), and there’s a fair few in the UK. Here’s a selection to give a flavour: Abingdon University, Ashford University, Athenaeum University, Chelsea University, Lamberhurst University, Somerset University, University of Doncaster, Westhampton University. Now some of these look odd – but without looking on the web are you absolutely sure that some of these aren't legitimate?

Anther practice which encourages degree mills is the habit – which I, haven’t come across in the UK – of employment contracts which give a higher salary for a higher qualification. The financial benefit of having a master’s degree or a doctorate becomes very real, and the ROI for a fake degree – if you’re not found out – is pretty good.

Ezell and Bear have a chapter, though, which really works for me: Animals with degrees. As part of the prosecution, it seems that investigators have made a habit of buying degrees for animals. And so there’s a catalogue of qualified pets of various sorts – my favourite is Dr Zoe D Katze.  And if you kept a snake, wouldn’t it be great to have a Mamba, MA MBA?

Zoe D Katze, PhD
HEDD are doing an important service, and it’s good that BIS are making this a priority.  But unless the will to prosecute is there, is it going to make a huge difference? I know from experience that local authorities do not put tackling the production of fake degree certificates at the top of their priority list, and they’re getting ever more stretched. Time to treat degree fraud as a more serious crime?

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