Mon, Dec 07, 2009
The Straits Times
Make dodgy degrees illegal

By Sandra Davie, Senior Writer

SINGAPORE should make it illegal to buy fake degrees and use them to seek jobs or business.

At the very least, it should follow the example of Oregon in the United States, which has laws requiring graduates from all unaccredited institutions to declare the status of their qualifications on their CVs and business cards.

I bring this up in light of recent articles in this newspaper highlighting the proliferation of degree mills and unaccredited, even bogus, institutions here.

For a little red dot, Singapore appears six times on a list of unaccredited institutions and degree mills compiled by Oregon's Office of Degree Authorisation (ODA). The six Singaporean institutions named are Cranston University, Templeton University, Trident University of Technology, Vancouver University Worldwide, Westmore University and Lee Community College.

ODA's office administrator, Mr Alan Contreras, said Singapore never used to make the dubious list. It does so now because the authorities opened the door to private post-secondary education without first establishing a strict oversight system.

'Your government has allowed its name to be used inappropriately,' said Mr Contreras, a plain-speaking man.

'Without enforcement of standards by the government, anything goes. This is why the reputation of degrees issued in Singapore is falling.'

His remarks may chafe but the authorities here should pay heed if we are to retain Singapore's position as a thriving educational hub that attracts the best global talent.

There is another reason why new regulations need to be instituted: more and more Singaporeans and foreigners are using these unaccredited or bogus degrees to land jobs and market their businesses.

In an expose last year, The Straits Times revealed that many Singaporean professionals - including prominent businessmen, insurance executives, investment advisers and even teachers - try to hoodwink employers and the public by touting qualifications from degree mills or substandard institutions.

Not surprisingly, some prominent people quietly dropped the 'Dr' titles from their business cards soon after the ST articles appeared. But some were only persuaded to do so after the much publicised case of Clemen Chiang, who used to make a lucrative living running weekend seminars on options trading.

When they discovered that his PhD was an unaccredited one from Preston University, a group of 48 of his course participants sued him for a refund of their fees in October last year. The court found him guilty of misrepresentation and ordered him to refund the fees - totalling $176,583. Another 400 of his students have since filed claims with the Small Claims Tribunal.

His appeal against the ruling for the first group of students was dismissed last week by the High Court.

Mr Chiang maintained that he should be allowed to use his PhD qualifications as he had done academic work - a thesis on options trading.

That is also the argument of several counselling psychology graduates from the American University for Humanities (AUH) who studied for their degrees at a private school here, Lee Community College.

The school had sought approval from the Ministry of Education (MOE) for the course which was offered by the university - located, surprisingly, not in the US but in Tbilisi, Georgia. Although MOE did not approve the application, the college continued to run the course.

In a letter published on the school's website, 27 graduates from Lee Community College complained that The Straits Times in its article last week had not taken into account the many hours of hard work they put in to attain their degrees.

That may be so. But the fact still remains: the course was not approved by the authorities here.

While MOE did not give reasons for its rejection, it is worth noting that AUH's two campuses in the US are both currently not accredited in the country.

Accreditation exists for a reason. It is a formal recognition, or guarantee, that a university meets certain standards. And it has become even more important today, when bogus and substandard institutions are flourishing. The ease with which degree mills can be set up and market themselves on the Internet does not help.

In the US, accreditation is a rigorous process. To pass muster, universities must be able to demonstrate a clear sense of purpose, and show that they have the resources and ability to achieve their aims. Their facilities should be excellent, and their staff must be well qualified.

It is important that standards are maintained in academia. If not, how will we be able to tell the quack from the expert, the ones with the requisite skills and knowledge from those without?

One Lee Community College student argued that it was not that important for counsellors to have accredited degrees. After all, they are not psychiatrists.

But we would not see a doctor without a proper degree, or engage an architect without the proper qualifications, so why should we make an exception with counsellors?

To bolster her case, the student trotted out that old urban myth about Harvard University being unaccredited.

'I was told by one of my lecturers that even Harvard University is not accredited. The university is so confident of its standards that it refuses to subject itself to US accreditation. Perhaps it is the same for AUH,' she said.

She should have verified her statement, just as she should have checked on the approval status of the degree course offered through Lee Community College. Not only is Harvard University accredited, it has been accredited since 1929 by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Its last review was in 1997.

This year it is due for another reaccreditation. Even Harvard is not above wanting to subject itself to accreditation.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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