Fake Degrees and Fraudulent Credentials in Higher Education was published by Springer Nature in January, 2023. It features over a dozen chapters on various topics related the broad theme of credential fraud.
The introductory chapter includes an overview and historical perspectives of key issues. In this opening chapter, the authors connect the dots between the industries that supply fake degrees and fraudulent academic documents (including but not limited to bogus reference letters and tampered transcripts) to the contract cheating industries (e.g., term paper mills, student proxy services, and examination impersonators who take tests on behalf students) and to the admissions fraud industry. In addition, a connection is made to the scholarly paper mill industry which includes various violations of scientific publication ethics including fake data, fabricated scholarly articles and authorship for sale.
We present these connected industries through our Ecosystem of Commercial Academic Fraud model (Eaton & Carmichael, 2022). They synthesize what is known about the size and scope of the industry, estimating its valuation to be at least $21 Billion USD.
In Chapter Two, Jamie Carmichael and I (who are Canadian) argue that Canada is vulnerable to admission and credential fraud. This argument will be substantiated through (i) a survey that spanned coast-to-coast within Canada, (ii) media review that targeted the response to Operation Varsity Blues in Canadian newspapers, and (iii) a comparative analysis with another survey on this topic to gauge how Canada is fairing compared to others across the globe. This data triangulation resulted in an in-depth examination of admissions fraud in Canada, with 14 recommendations for practitioners, researchers, and those involved in policy reform.
In the third chapter, FBI Special Agent (retired), Allen Ezell, takes readers on a tour of “Axact, the world’s largest diploma mill”. Ezell has more than 40 years of experience investigating “fake high schools, colleges, universities, and counterfeiters” (p. 53). He writes that, “Axact is a classic example of a criminal enterprise. Even its own employees refer to it as the tower of frauds and house of lies.” (p. 49). This chapter is the longest in the book by far, spanning 49 pages, complete with concrete details, photos, and insider information not available anywhere else. Ezell explains that diploma mills, “are professional operations that take planning, preparation, and organization to run smoothly. Like legitimate businesses, they have business models, conduct market studies, have financial forecasts, perform cost analyses, set daily/ weekly/monthly sales goals, and offer sales incentives. They constantly survey their competition, and actions by law enforcement and regulators, to determine the direction the wind is blowing.” (p. 53)
Chapter Four, by Joanne Duklas, addresses how “digitization and technology have improved electronic exchange practices in the areas of document and data management and reduced occurrences of fraud thereby encouraging greater trust in the verification and assessment process for admission and transfer” (p. 95). Duklas discusses how background checks regularly show evidence of misrepresentation and fraud. Duklas’s in-depth exploration of key issues related to electronic exchange processes. She provides details about Canada’s national document exchange network, MyCreds™ | MesCertif™, launched in 2020. She notes that, “Building solid bridges (technical infrastructure, standards, legislation, policies, and procedures) between issuers and receivers of official documents remains important for a trusted, quality assured ecosystem. Various technology solutions are solving credential fraud and creating greater trust in the chain of custody and bone fides of official documents.” (p. 110)
In Chapter 5, Kirsten Hextrum “considers how legal athletic admissions mirror the largest college admission conspiracy in US history: Operation Varsity Blues (OVB)” (p. 115). Hextrum analyzed 1487 college athletes’ demographic data; 47 life- history interviews with college athletes; and admission-related documents. Her results reveal how athletes invest to develop athletic talent, disputing college leaders’ claims that athletic admissions create diverse cohorts. She addresses important issues related to equity, diversity, and inclusion, as her findings show that “athletic investments create homogenous cohorts as White, middle-class youth are overrepresented as college athletes.” (p. 115). In addition, Hextrum discusses, “how colleges authenticate athletes’ credentials” (p. 115), finding that “universities use inconsistent and arbitrary measures—sometimes admitting athletes with little sport experience” (p. 115). Hextrum’s findings indicate that “athletic admissions misalign with the public’s interest because they are fixed to favour White, middle-class athletes and remain vulnerable to fraud” (p. 115).
In the next chapter, Stella-Maris Orim and Irene Glendinning, write about “Corruption in Admissions, Recruitment, Qualifications and Credentials” from the perspective of quality assurance. They draw on research conducted in 2017–2018 for the Council of Higher Education Accreditation’s International Quality Group (CIQG) “into how Accreditation and Quality Assurance Bodies (AQABs) respond to corruption” (p. 133). They address the question: Who is responsible for reducing corruption in education and research? (p. 133). They present findings from their empirical research, leading them to their evidence-informed conclusion that “higher education providers around the world are aware of corruption, fraud and malpractice in student assessment.”, but that “that much less attention has been given by institutions to the types of integrity breaches that we have looked at in this chapter, fraud in admissions and recruitment and in credentials and qualifications” (p. 145).
Chapter 7, by Özgür Çelik and Salim Razı, addresses favouritism and professorial recruitment practices in Turkish higher education institutions. They address the issue of fraud and corruption indirectly, through an analysis of 66 news stories that address favourtism in Turkish universities. They discuss how favouritism erodes public trust, noting that “the negative consequences of favouritism are far-reaching” (p. 154). Their findings showed that nepotism, cronyism, and patronage, were key areas of concern. They found that when specific individuals were identified for academic positions that customized job descriptions can be written so that only that particular individual could be deemed qualified. Although their chapter focuses specifically on Turkey, there are lessons that are transferrable to other countries with regards to corrupt hiring practices in higher education and other sectors.
The next two chapters address fraud in standardized English-language proficiency testing. Soroush Sabbaghan and Ismaeil Fazel’s chapter aims to “shed light on the complexities and the apparent disconnect between equity, integrity, fairness, and justice in standardized language proficiency tests and the integrity issues that can arise as a result” (p. 169). They point out that “at their core, standardized procedures imposed by testing centers ignore the fact that test-takers come from different socio-economic and sociocultural backgrounds with different interests, motivations and experiences of learning and using English” (p. 171). For those interested in exploring issues related to equity, diversity, and inclusion of international students, this chapter is a must read.
Angela Clark continues the discussion of fraud and corruption in English-language proficiency exams in her chapter that explores fraudulent test scores. Clark argues that “relying on a single language proficiency test score to determine an individual’s readiness is problematic, and also problematic is the lack of related academic research and data to help guide admissions decision-making” (p. 187). Clark presents concrete recommendations for “institutional stakeholders with ways to become better informed about these tests and their impact and approaches to help international NNES [non-native English-speaker] students succeed within their new academic disciplines and new academic culture” (p. 187) that include reconsidering admission criteria (p. 199) and instituting a post-entry language assessment (PELA) (p. 199).
In Chapter Ten, Brendan DeCoster uses systems theory to address admissions fraud. DeCoster explores the “culture of admissions fraud” in the United States. He proposes “a five-level framework for analyzing admissions fraud, noting how individuals, small groups and firms, larger firms, institutions, and political entities all play roles in establishing definitions of fraud, investigating fraud, prosecuting fraud, committing fraud, abetting fraud, and countering fraud” (p. 209). The five levels include micro, metaxy, meso, macro, and acro, and he provides examples for each level in his chapter.
Next, Jamie Carmichael leads a chapter on topic modelling, “an unsupervised machine learning technique commonly used in computer science as a research method” (p. 227). In this novel study, “data from 30 websites selling fake degrees were manually scraped, observations noted, and a topic model was built to identify risks within the dataset”, demonstrating that “that topic modeling can identify security risks by providing an environmental scan of the threat.” (p. 227). Twenty evidence-based recommendations are offered for higher education security professionals, senior leaders, and researchers.
In the penultimate chapter, together with Jamie Carmichael, I explore “what can happen when professor and educational leaders have fake or fraudulent degrees or other qualifications. We present four key issues: (a) the threat to institutional reputation; (b) the threat to the credentials awarded by the institutions; (c) the impact on students; and (d) material costs to the organization. Then, we propose seven recommendations to prevent or address academic qualification fraud: (a) verify applicant credentials; (b) develop or update internal risk assessment plans; (c) conduct an internal qualifications audit; (d) develop or update institutional codes of conduct; (e) develop an internal process to investigate allegations of credential fraud; (f) develop and follow internal quality assurance processes for courses, programs, and curricula; and (g) Develop or update crisis communications plans to include credential fakery or fraud. We conclude by emphasizing that moral outrage will not solve the problem of academic credential fraud.” (p. 251).
In our final chapter, we summarize key findings from the book, grouping them into “seven main categories: (a) historical perspectives and terminology; (b) a trend of global indifference; (c) criminal enterprises and security; (d) fraud in standardized language proficiency testing; (e) athletic credentialism; (f) the role of the institution; (g) hiring, and (h) technology. We discuss the significance and limitations of the book, concluding with calls to action for more research and resources to better understand and address the growing problem of the ecosystem of academic fraud that continues to grow” (p. 269).
This book was a passion project that we undertook during COVID-19. We hope it is useful to others who are dedicated to upholding academic integrity and raising awareness about the threats posed to higher education by fake degrees, fraud, corruption, and quackery.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton, PhD, is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, and the Educational Leader in Residence, Academic Integrity, University of Calgary, Canada. Opinions are my own and do not represent those of the University of Calgary.