Sunday August 23, 2009
Got money, got degree
Reports by TEH ENG HOCK, KAREN CHAPMAN, ROYCE CHEAH, HARIATI AZIZAN and RASHVINJEET S.BEDI
YOU do not have to study, seek admission or attend lectures – starting from a few hundred ringgit, you can get a degree of your choice online in a matter of minutes.
A quick Internet search by the Starprobe team resulted in a long list of alleged degree mills worldwide such as Hill University, Rochville University and Buxton University.
All these institutions of higher learning claim to be accredited, but none is recognised by the Malaysian Qualifications Authority (MQA) or the local accreditation body’s respective foreign partners.
Whether to boost their career development or to improve their social standing, many Malaysians have taken the easy way of buying their paper qualifications online.
And among the holders of these dubious qualifications are some prominent people, including lawmakers from both sides of the political divide.
When the Washington-based newspaper Spokesman Review exposed a bogus degree scam in the United States in July, a list of 10,000 buyers was made public.
More than 50 Malaysians contributed to the US$7.3mil (RM25.6mil) generated by the Spokane-based syndicate, which issued phoney and counterfeit high school and college degrees from institutions such as Concordia University, St Regis University, St Lourdes University, All Saints American University and Heartland University.
However, several people who are suspected to be holding these bogus degrees declined to comment or furnish the Starprobe team with their curriculum vitae when contacted.
As the diploma mill trend shows, almost anyone can get a degree.
The standard prerequisites needed are experience, skills, knowledge or expertise in a given field of study, all which the buyer easily meets by declaring so in the registration form without needing to provide any documentary proof.
The buyer can even specify a past date or year of graduation to be stated in the degree.
These sites offer a wide and comprehensive range of qualifications, from high school certifications, Bachelors and Masters degrees to doctorates.
Buyers are promised a traditional-looking degree, which means none of the certificates contain words like online or life experience.
The offers are so comprehensive that some even provide an academic transcript, a certificate of distinction and an award of excellence, plus verification from the university’s registrar to boot.
Some even offer packages, which means you could obtain your Bachelors, Masters and PhD at one go at a discounted special rate.
These syndicates promise to deliver your graduation package, which starts from US$150 (RM525), between five and 14 days by courier.
One website even goes to the extent of offering buyers the option to pay in instalments.
Many dubious organisations passing themselves off as universities are legally registered business entities.
Some even submit their annual tax returns in the country they are registered at, but do not conduct any shady dealings in their “home” country, thus not breaking any law in the nation they are registered in.
According to the Irish Embassy, the Irish International University (IIU) is registered as a private company in Ireland, while Dublin Metropolitan University (DMU) had a business address in Cyprus.
According to its website, the IIU, which is now known as the Isles International University, has its main international office in Petaling Jaya even though it was blacklisted by the Malaysian Government in 2005. Its head is executive president Hardeep Singh Sandhu, a Malaysian businessman.
In January last year, a BBC London investigation team exposed IIU as an international education scam that targets foreign students who went to study in the British capital.
“The bogus Irish International University (IIU), which offers sub-standard and worthless degrees, has been allowed to flourish in the UK – virtually unchecked by Government – for the last seven years,” said BBC in the report.
Many of its programmes and courses are offered via the Internet to “students” from various nations without the need for it to set up a base in those countries.
As Irish ambassador to Malaysia Eugene Hutchinson shares, the embassy frequently gets enquiries from potential employers or students on the “dubious” institutions.
“They are not recognised as a university or as any other form of academic institution in Ireland. Any awards that they offer are not recognised by any statutory awarding bodies in Ireland and therefore have no academic standing whatsoever in our country,” he says.
He adds that the Irish authorities do not view them as universities although their names were clearly intended to convey so. “As can be seen from their websites, these enterprises continue to use the term university in their business names, in contravention of Irish law.
“The IIU and other similar business enterprises are endeavouring to exploit the good name of Irish education for their own ends. Their claims of ‘validation’ and ‘accreditation’ deserve very careful critical examination,” he points out.
These organisations are aware that they are being monitored by the Irish authorities, and they try to keep tabs by contacting the embassy in return.
“Frequently, they call to see what we know. Sometimes they pretend to be making enquiries as a third party. We try to keep correspondence with them to a minimum as we do not want them to claim that they were in correspondence with the Irish authorities (thus making it appear as endorsed by them),” he says, adding that Ireland had distanced itself from the IIU and DMU.
Interestingly, Irish deputy ambassador to Malaysia Eoin Duggan highlights that these enterprises do not conduct any of their operations in Ireland.
“They are a registered business in Ireland. They make a tax return annually, hence they are not illegal. I have not heard of any Irish who has obtained degrees from them,” he says.
To make themselves even more attractive, some of these “universities” would set up or become a member of an equally dubious “accreditation body”.
Many provide hotline numbers and e-mail addresses of the “universities” and “accreditation bodies”, which are usually passed on by the “graduates” to their potential employers should these companies want to verify the qualifications of their prospective employees.
Former vice-chancellor of Sunway University College Prof Jarlath Ronayne concurs, also citing the BBC report on IIU, which had claimed that its programmes were accredited and quality controlled by QAC-UK Ltd – a Quality Assurance Commission based in London.
Further investigation, however, revealed that the people behind the “university” were also co-directors of the accreditation body.
“There are a few of these accreditation agencies that are not Government sanctioned or authorised. They are ‘private’ accreditation bodies and cater to institutions that are not accredited by their respective governments,” he says.
Echoing this, a source from the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) shares that the formal or legal national accreditation or quality assurance agency of a particular country would be a member of International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE).
Prof Ronayne highlights that one of the ways for bogus universities to gain credibility was by inviting prominent people such as politicians and business leaders to be the guests of honour at their convocations. He adds that the convocation ceremonies can sometimes be quite grand.
“They have their convocation ceremonies in Oxford and Cambridge where they rent the universities’ halls. That would give students a false impression,” he says.
Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange (Macee) advises students to check with the particular country’s educational office to verify if the programme or institution is authentic before signing up.
“If it’s an American degree or institution, they should contact Macee as we provide information on all accredited universities and colleges in the United States (US),” says Macee Educational Advising Center coordinator Doreen John.
Students could also check with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (www.chea.org) website as it has a database of institutions and programmes accredited by recognised US organisations, says John.
“If students want to opt for distance learning, they have to be extra cautious. “If the programme they want to do is such a bargain in terms of cost, and they don’t need to do any work for it then it is probably fake,” she adds.
British Council Malaysia Education and Programmes Director Peter Clack also advises students to check if the British course or institution they are interested in is authentic and officially recognised before signing up.
Students can take several steps, he says, including meeting the institutions’ representatives at the Education UK exhibitions organised by the British Council; and logging onto the Education UK website (www.educationuk.org.my) for lists of institutions and courses.
They could also check if the name of the institution appears on the Universities and Colleges Admissions Services (UCAS) website (www.ucas.com), and if the institutions’ own website address ends with .ac.uk.
To ensure that the institutions were empowered to offer degrees, students could check the UK’s Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills’ website (www.dcsf.gov.uk/recognisedukdegrees).
As for accreditation, Clack says the official quality assurance bodies were the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education website (www. qaa.ac.uk) or the British Accreditation Council website (www.the-bac.org).
Students planning to take up Irish courses are advised to consult the list of higher education providers on www.educationireland.ie or refer to Ireland’s National Framework of Qualifications at www.cao.ie.
National Association of Private Educational Institutions (Napei) president Assoc Prof Elajsolan Mohan advises employers who were unsure of any prospective employees’ qualifications to verify them.
“An individual once applied to my college to become a lecturer but when we checked his qualifications, we discovered the university where he claimed to have done his PhD did not exist,” he says.