SINGAPORE

They fake it, but they can't make it

THE NEW PAPER
Tuesday, May 30, 2017
Brookes Business School was closed down for peddling fake degrees from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).

The degree certificate in front her looked real enough.

It had been submitted by a man applying for an engineering job.

But its pristine condition set off alarm bells in human resource recruiter Annie Yap's mind.

The candidate's resume stated he had graduated 10 years earlier, yet the paper on which the certificate was printed had not aged.

"I knew something was wrong when I saw that it looked brand new. It was almost like he had collected it the day before.

"We all file our qualifications, but there is no way that it could remain in such a pristine condition after 10 long years," she said.

SUSPICIONS CONFIRMED

As it turns out, Ms Yap was right.

She contacted the university in India and the school revealed it had never had a graduate by the candidate's name.

In 2012 and 2013, 121 foreign employees were convicted and barred from working in Singapore after being found guilty of providing falsified documents.

In 2014, the number dropped as 36 foreign employees were successfully prosecuted by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), an MOM spokesman told The New Paper.

MOM amended the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act in 2012 and made the falsification of academic qualifications to the Controller of Work Passes a standalone offence with stiffer penalties.

"Offenders may be fined up to $20,000 and/or imprisoned up to two years," the spokesman said.

Ms Yap said: "While the decrease is a good sign, that still means an average of three applicants are caught a month and that is still a troubling number."

Ms Yap said it is not always easy to spot a bogus degree.

She said some even come with seals that look like those of a real university.

"It makes it harder because with the naked eye, some of these counterfeits look identical to the real thing."

EXPOSED IN INTERVIEWS

But these applicants can get caught during interviews.

"There was one incident where a client approached us after an interview with a candidate who had applied directly to them. "They doubted the authenticity of the qualifications given to them by the applicant after he struggled with almost all the technical questions they shot at him," she said.

Checks with the applicant's institution revealed he was not a graduate from the university. The man was immediately reported to MOM. Ms Lance Foo, 39, the regional director of Riverchelles, an international human resource consulting firm, said there are telltale signs if someone submits a fake degree.

If it takes time to verify the authenticity of the academic qualification, candidates are hired first and then made to sign an indemnity and acknowledge that they will lose the job if the information provided is found to be false later on.

Ms Yap said for candidates from abroad, they prefer those with qualifications from the Top 50 universities from their home country as it is easier to check with these institutions.

She paid $19,000 for useless doctorate

Her dream of getting a PhD was ground to dust by a degree mill.

In 2007, the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) physician in her 50s paid $19,000 in fees to enrol in West Coast University-Panama's (WCU) doctorate programme.

Over the next 15 months, the woman, who wanted to be known only as Ms Ho F.M., attended classes at a local private school at Middle Road that offered degree programmes from WCU.

She went for classes twice a month and even completed a 50,000-word thesis.

But after graduating, she discovered that her doctorate was useless.

"Of course I was angry. But when these things happened, where could I go to complain?" she said in Mandarin.

The Council for Private Education here (CPE) was set up only in 2009 and the Private Education Regulations were gazetted that same year.

In 2008, Ms Ho was among 76 graduates of WCU. The students even had a graduation ceremony at Old Parliament House. But WCU turned out to be an unaccredited university.

UNACCREDITED

The unaccredited university was not based in Los Angeles, as the private school in Singapore had claimed it was.

WCU is actually based in Panama City, Panama, and has affiliated campuses in countries such as Bangladesh, Iran and Nigeria.

A degree from an unaccredited university may not be recognised by employers, including professional bodies and the civil service. Ms Ho and several graduates were unaware of the university's dubious reputation.

How dodgy was it? Over the years, WCU has appeared regularly on lists featuring unaccredited universities.

It is not to be confused with the California-based West Coast University, which is known for its nursing courses.

WCU has been described as a "degree supplier" that offers "fraudulent or substandard degrees".

Said Ms Ho: "It was only when we had graduated that we found out. The newspapers revealed the news that the university was not accredited."

She had spotted the university's advertisement in a local newspaper and had enrolled with a friend.

She said: "It didn't occur to us to check on the university before we enrolled.

"We saw the advertisement in a newspaper and figured that if it was in the newspapers, it was legitimate."

After the news broke, Ms Ho did not take legal action against the school and did not get her money back.

"Out of all of those affected, none of us complained. Even if one person had, not much could have been done. I wasn't sure what to do then," she said.

Ms Ho felt that the programme itself was well run.

She said: "We went for the classes and the school had professors to conduct the classes. Why would we think anything was wrong?" Her one regret is that she did not, in the end, receive proper credentials.

Commenting on the recent controversies regarding degree mills, Ms Ho said: "I hope others don't get cheated by this.

"If such cases are still happening, they have to report to the police and get those responsible."

We went for the classes and the school had professors to conduct the classes. Why would we think anything was wrong?

HOW TO TELL IF IT’S THE REAL DEAL?

Call the candidate's certificate issuing institutions

Check if he or she had indeed graduated in that particular year with the provided qualification.

The registrar's office will usually confirm if a person was enrolled at the school and the date they graduated.

Hire a human resource firm that focuses on background checks

HR firms like First Advantage, which has a branch in Singapore, provide services like background checks. On its site, it says it can check whether a candidate has a criminal record and can verify his or her academic qualifications.

Check the quality of the certificate

Check the spelling and grammar of the writing: No renowned university would risk its reputation by allowing such mistakes on a certificate or official transcript.

Also check the alignment of the text on the certificate. Badly printed degrees are a red flag.

TYPES OF SOFT DEGREES

DEGREE MILLS

The term degree mill or diploma mill refers to schools that are more interested in earning a student's fees than in providing quality education.

They often give out the degree even if the student has not done assignments or even attended classes.

REAL UNIVERSITY, FAKE DEGREE

In 2010, The New Paper reported on conmen here who were selling fake degrees from local universities including National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore Management University (SMU).

The counterfeiters, who priced their bogus certificates from a few hundred dollars to $4,000, were based in Singapore and China. They even provided transcripts and identification documents for a fee.

FAKE UNIVERSITY, FAKE DEGREE

In 2008 alone, at least 218 people in Singapore were found with degrees from dubious universities such as Preston, Wisconsin International and Kennedy-Western.

These were not accredited institutions.

OTHER CASES

APRIL 2015:

Kings International Business School will have its registration cancelled by the Council for Private Education (CPE) from May 5. The council had investigated and found that the private school had offered and awarded some students diplomas in maritime studies without requiring them to attend class or be assessed. Kings has been told by CPE to arrange for its students to continue their course at another school or refund their full course fees by May 5.

APRIL 2015:

Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) employee Nisha Padmanabhan was accused of misleading her employers after it was revealed that she had a master's degree from online-based Southern Pacific University, which is allegedly a degree mill. She was cleared of claims that she misled her employers when she applied for the job, as her employment had not been based on her MBA, according to IDA.

AUGUST 2013:

A website that belonged to a purported online university offered a bachelor's degree from one of the "top universities around the world" for US$199 (S$263), and a doctorate for US$26 more. The advertisement on Facebook offered accredited degrees without having to take exams or do coursework. The ad carried the Ministry of Education's (MOE) logo, but MOE clarified it was not associated with the website or the company.

JULY 2009:

The registration of Brookes Business School was cancelled by MOE after it was found to have peddled fake degrees from a well-known Australian university. About 400 local and overseas students were affected by the closure.

crobert@sph.com.sg

heatherh@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 02, 2015.
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