By Sandra Davie
JUST how easy is it to get a doctorate from a degree mill? To put it to the test, The Straits Times applied for a doctorate for my pet beagle Harry two weeks ago.
All I did was go to www.ashwooduniversity.net, fill in his name (Harry Doggy), date of birth (Nov 19), age (I multiplied his seven dog years by seven for the equivalent in human years and put down 49)and work-life experience - where I wrote 'spent years studying the interactions between people and animals'.
I then clicked on a Doctorate in Social and Behavioural Sciences, costing US$599 (S$850), one of the cheapest in the market. I also chose his grade point average (GPA). A GPA of 3.0 comes free, but anything above 3.5 with Latin honours (summa cum laude) costs another US$60.
Within 15 hours, the experience evaluation committee of Ashwood University which claimed to be in Humble, Texas, sent a congratulatory e-mail to Harry Doggy saying that the '10-member evaluation committee' at Ashwood University had 'approved' him for a doctorate in social and behavioural sciences.
The degree would be issued once payment was received, which could be done in instalment plans over a month.
I keyed in my credit card details. And just like that, Harry Doggy was on his way to becoming one of the doctorate holders in Singapore and perhaps Singapore's smartest beagle.
No need to sit through admission interviews with faculty and alumni, submit multiple citations, or labour over a 100,000-word dissertation.
Over the next few days, the hard sell began. Ashwood University offered a slew of 'limited time only' sweeteners: Would Harry Doggy like an additional master's degree for a discounted price of US$299? Or more verification letters for employers, for a fee of course?
Within seven days, a degree scroll, two copies of a results transcript, complete with Ashwood University car decals, were delivered by a courier service.
The postmark originated not from Texas in the United States, but from a 'Mr A. Sheik Abdullah' from Dubai in the Middle East.
In the transcripts, Ashwood University invented a list of eight fictional courses that Harry Doggy passed with As, Bs and Cs, including sociology of poverty, social work practice and folklore and mythology.
Also included were two verification letters for employers attesting that Harry Doggy was a graduate of Ashwood University. There was even a US-based toll-free phone number for employers to call if they wanted to check on Harry Doggy's credentials.
The Straits Times experiment showed just how easy it is for anybody with a credit card and Internet access to get a degree by mail-order - all within a week.
It also laid bare how these diploma factories typically operate. Many post lush pictures of quadrangled tree-lined campuses, though all they have is a US-registered toll-free number that is routed to 'student advisers' or 'dean of students' in another country, be it in the Middle East, Pakistan or Liberia.
Online, these universities appear authentic, thanks to computer technology which allows its creators to cut and paste with abandon.
One of the virtual degree mills recently exposed, Robertstown University, featured a picture of Blenheim Castle, the birthplace of Winston Churchill in Oxfordshire, Britain, suggesting it was part of its campus.
It does not help that several of these bogus institutions cunningly adopt names very similar to bona fide universities or colleges. For example, degree mill Hamilton University, which exists only in cyberspace, fools many employers because its name is close to Hamilton College in New York.
It takes the sharp-eyed to spot that Berkley University, another virtual entity, is not the famous Berkeley University of California.
Resume screening companies estimate that there are more than 500 such bogus operations around the world. The majority operate in the US.
And as the ongoing court case of diploma mill St Regis University in Washington state reveals, their operators are raking in millions.
The ringleaders of St Regis University, husband and wife team Steven and Eileen Randocks, who were sentenced to jail recently, took in a whopping US$7 million from 1999 to 2005 from selling more than 10,000 diplomas to customers in 131 countries.
On their customer list of 9,612 names were 36 from Singapore. Straits Times checks found that among the 36 was a retired school teacher, two private school teachers, an IT manager and two businessmen.
Job recruiters and resume screening companies though cautioned that degree fraud was happening on a much larger scale here, with one company IntegraScreen saying that 5 per cent of the degrees it vets are found to be false.
Last year, the Manpower Ministry said it caught over 400 people lying in their work pass applications, a big jump from the 97 cases in 2005.
The majority caught had used fake or forged qualifications.
Resume detectives say there are Singaporeans as well as foreigners with bogus qualifications who have held jobs as counsellors, teachers, psychologists, nurses and engineers.
Last year, a nursing home sacked a nurse from China because her qualifications were forged.
The home's administrator, who declined to be named, said: 'Luckily, she had been here for only three weeks.' The nurse had submitted a degree from a West Coast University, a degree mill accredited in the Pacific Islands of Wallis and Futuna.
But it took a while for the administrator to find out that it was not the same as the US-based West Coast University in Los Angeles, well known for its courses in health-related fields.
A resident's daughter, Madam Faye Lim, 42, had alerted the home after the nurse told her that it was okay for her diabetic father to miss his insulin jabs once in a while.
Said Madam Lim, a housewife: 'It was a close shave. The new nurse was very popular because she was very friendly, but to think that she used a degree from an unaccredited university.
'If I followed her advice, God knows what would have happened to my father.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 29, 2008.