Obsession with credentials fans fake-degree industry

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 2008, 12:00am

The trade in fake academic credentials, reported on the opposite page, makes for a cautionary tale. Worryingly, the few cases uncovered recently involving Hong Kong people are just the tip of an iceberg. The world is awash with fakes and academic impostors. They are the products of institutions known as degree mills that have long frustrated education authorities and deceived employers in developed countries. The operators of these scams have capitalised on the opportunity created by Asia's rapid economic growth to globalise the market for unearned and unrecognised credentials.

A number of factors have contributed to this state of affairs. With globalisation, more people apply for jobs in other countries unfamiliar with their educational background. Changes in the university sector in many places, to allow private and semi-private institutions to award degrees, have made it harder to keep track of them. Online and distance study compounds the problem.

Ironically, the spread of education has played a role by helping fuel a demand for diplomas and degrees with which it now cannot keep up. As employers demand ever higher qualifications, operators of scams have found it easy to extract money from employees and job seekers with the lure of quick credentials. And the growth of the internet has made it simple to market them and to access them online. The marketing has also become more sophisticated, with bogus agencies being set up to accredit fictitious degree-awarding colleges.

Degree mills flourish in some Asian countries. Despite the maturity of Hong Kong's education market, they are also to be found here alongside genuine institutions at higher education fairs and in education advertisements. Reports of Hong Kong people with fake qualifications from western and Asian countries are not uncommon. The mainland has long been home to a bogus-certificate industry centred in Shenzhen.

As we report today, the internet is a double-edged sword that can be used by academic investigators to expose dubious educational claims online. That does not, however, tackle an underlying factor that drives the problem - contemporary society's obsession with credentials. Qualifications alone are not conclusive evidence of the ability, application and aptitude that will determine success in a chosen career. However, in a world where on-the-job training is the exception, they are, understandably, much valued. In a global education market, the credibility of the institutions that offer them is therefore a serious issue.

Bogus accreditation and fake degrees and diplomas undermine the credibility of recognised qualifications. The authorities everywhere must step up their efforts to expose and combat this unscrupulous trade. There needs to be a more concerted effort by officially accredited institutions and the private sector to verify credentials.

Credentials are the global currency of opportunity. While they may not always reflect a person's true potential, we should uphold the integrity of qualifications dearly earned by exposing fakes and cracking down on the operators who market them.