A UiTM graduand verifying her qualifications at the university portal. Picture by SADDAM YUSOFF

IN Malaysia, an English daily newspaper in 2016 reported a company allegedly charged RM6,500 for a bachelor’s degree, RM8,500 for a master’s and RM10,500 for doctoral

courses in various disciplines from foreign universities that were subsequently found to be non-existent.

Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, Malaysia Chapter president Datuk Sri Akhbar Satar said the Malaysian police were able to successfully suppress a syndicate that was selling fake certificates, purportedly from five foreign countries.

Two years ago, it was reported in a local Chinese newspaper that a syndicate operating in Puchong, Selangor has been selling fake academic scrolls from Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) and SEGi College to the public.

The report said a fake diploma scroll from UiTM was sold at RM1,000 and a forged degree scroll at RM2,000. The syndicate charged RM2,000 for a phony diploma, RM3,000 for a forged bachelor’s or master’s degree from SEGi.

The fake certificates were said to be bilingually produced and they bore the seal of the institution as well as the signature of the chancellor.

Apparently, there is a choice of 30 programmes available at the universities and the scroll and transcript are delivered via mail a day after the two-hour fabrication process.

A good paper qualification opens doors to a better job and higher pay for a workforce that is already struggling to get employment and will also pave the way for brighter career prospects. With the advancement of digital technology and wider accessibility of the Internet and connectivity, more people can earn their degree through distance and online learning.

The recent exposure by the media and increased number of higher education institutions offering instant academic qualifications to interested parties have raised alarm.

Education is touted as a billion-dollar industry worldwide, and this undeniable need for academic credentials has led to the proliferation of the degree mill — where fake or questionable academic qualifications, ranging from diploma to postgraduate, can be bought online.

These so-called degree holders will then apply for jobs or ask for promotion using the bought qualification and join the ranks of bona fide colleagues in becoming managers, engineers, bankers, lecturers and even medical doctors.

,REALITY BITES

In 2016, a motivational speaker was mired in controversy as his doctoral credentials were supposedly bestowed upon him by Universiti Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Universiti Kuala Lumpur, which denied doing so.

This year in February, a politician came under fire over his academic background as his Wikipedia page had stated that the deputy minister holds a degree from the University of Cambridge, instead of Cambridge International University in the United States where he studied.

In another case, an entrepreneur-cum-pop star with two degrees from a bogus university has established a Kuala Lumpur-based an international college.

He put “Dr” in front of his name and gave his qualifications as MBA and PhD from the European Business School purportedly in Cambridge, UK.

However, in 2010, a British Broadcasting Corporation programme exposed him as a fraud as those qualifications are from a bogus institution.

Danial Reza (not his real name), who pursued a business degree at the University of Brisbane, Australia, failed to sit his final-year exams. He did not graduate and had opted for a “fake” degree upon returning to Malaysia.

Feeling ashamed of himself for disappointing his parents who had high hopes for him, Danial did some research on the Internet and asked about getting a fake degree from his friends.

He was willing to pay any amount of money as long as his “fake” degree looks legit. Eventually he got his certificates and worked at a company for almost 10 years without getting caught or queried by his employer.

It was not until recently when he applied for a job and was caught out when a background check was carried out.

“I never thought I will end up being caught with a fake degree. I was involved with someone during my studies, only to get my heart broken. I was so devastated and couldn’t focus even though it was the final of my three years of studies.

“My advice to undergraduates is to fully concentrate on their studies or maybe they will end up like me,” said Danial.

Senior commercial bank manager Athirah Ali, who is based in Kuala Lumpur, has encountered an employee who forged his certificate to apply for a position in the company.

Mohdi Yalal (not his real name) is suspected to have obtained a fake master’s degree certificate from George Washington University in the US and used it to apply for a position, which he eventually secured.

“I was suspicious of him because he doesn’t know Excel. I researched his university and found out it’s a private institution without much of a website.

“We wondered how he passed his exams when he is not even familiar with the pivot table in Excel worksheets,” she said, adding that the management has yet to take action against him.

Certificates are important in any country, especially for employment. “However, most employers don’t check if they are genuine. They just get excited when it’s a US degree. It’s also quite easy to get a fake certificate in this country.

“The rich ones or those who are desperate have been using this as an easy way to gain employment.”

The issue of fake credentials and degree mills presents a challenge to the authorities. It has caused concern among industry players, not only for universities but also employers and other stakeholders who will be affected by this academic dishonesty.

From an institutional perspective, this fraudulent practice results not only in financial loss but also damage to reputation.

For private companies, the employment of individuals with fake qualification brings the risk of losing credibility and manifestation of such dishonesty in their job performance.

And for the government, a civil servant with bogus credentials can be a public relations disaster.

FIDUCIARY RELATIONSHIP

From the perspective of human resources and employability, the issue of “fake degrees” has yet to reach an alarming or worrying stage in this country, said PLUS Malaysia Bhd human resource relations head Wan Nong Khairol.

In fact, he added this issue only came to light after some politicians were alleged to have paid for fake certificates and these individuals graduated sometime ago.

“Currently, we have yet to discover any of our employees with fake degrees,” he added.

Cases of fake degrees should never be taken lightly by employers. Being able to work, notwithstanding a fake degree, is not the issue as it is about honesty and integrity.

“Why should we deprive others who work hard for their degree and is able to do the same work just as well? If an advantage is gained through a dishonest act, whatever result you achieve will never hide the fact that you are a cheat to begin with.

“The end doesn’t justify the means. The right tone has to be set for employees of all ages and at all levels of management.”

On tackling this issue the moment the management finds out, there can be two scenarios.

“The first scenario is when you discover the fake degree at the point of pre-employment interview, and the second scenario is when you discover it while the person is in your employment.

“In the first scenario, we will not consider him or her for employment while in the second scenario, he or she will be terminated from employment with immediate effect.”

In an employer-employee relationship, there exists a fiduciary relationship where trust and integrity should always be present.

“But once this relationship is broken by a fraudulent act of the employee or an act that is intended to mislead the company, it amounts to major misconduct which warrants a punishment of dismissal.”

The conventional way of discovering fake degrees is when the company appoints external parties to do a background check on the candidate.

“Normally there will be red flags to indicate a need for a background check such as questionable qualification, failure to bring the original certificate or the certificate itself looks ‘manufactured’.

“Another way is through the interview itself. Someone with straight As or an excellent qualification will be able to handle questions relating to his qualification. Hence, if his answers seem totally out of point, or if the candidate struggles to grasp even the basic technical aspects at the interview, we will be wary.

“We appreciate that a person can be nervous or tongue-tied during an interview but that normally relates to form as opposed to substance, and it is the latter which concerns us.

“In such a situation, whether it is a fake degree or otherwise, a candidate will normally not be considered for further assessment. Asking the right questions during an interview is important to shortlist truly deserving candidates.”

On why some resort to buying fake degrees, he said that recognition is emphasised.

“If you get As, people want to know how many As. If you have a degree, people want to know if it’s first class. If you have a first class degree, you will feel threatened by those with a double degree or postgraduate qualifications and the list goes on.

“At the end of the day, it is all about having an impressive array of qualifications so as to make your curriculum vitae more attractive. The more impressive your degrees, the higher the recognition and the more likely you will secure employment.

“So faking a degree or two seems like a convenient solution.”

Companies require a standard CGPA (normally between 2.8 and 3.0) for potential candidates to be called for an interview.

“Multiple or impressive degrees will not mean much if you do miserably at the interview as there will be other candidates to choose from.”

Wan Nong advises undergraduates to work honestly for their qualification as this will stand them in good stead when they enter the workforce.

“Success at securing a job interview is not reliant on your degree or qualification, it only allows you to be called for one. What makes a candidate successful is his ability to think on his feet, speak confidently, explain clearly, think strategically and above all, have a positive mindset.

“It is all about selling yourself to the employer and not about selling the stacks of degrees — fake or genuine.”

ACADEMIC PERSPECTIVE

Universiti Tun Abdul Razak (Unitar) vice-chancellor Professor Dr Nor Raihan Abd Hamid said the ease of interconnection in the era of Internet of Things presents challenges to higher education.

“Issues such as fake certification and plagiarism can have an impact on academic integrity as well as raise concerns among industry players including universities, employers and other stakeholders who are affected by the dishonesty.

“This can potentially damage the reputation of higher education institutions as well as the employers who hire these so-called graduates,” she said.

Nor Raihan added that accounts of persons being employed in critical positions based on fake degrees surface regularly in the news.

“For example, Bausch & Lomb chief executive officer from 2001 to 2008 faked an MBA from a business school he didn’t graduate from.

“The dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology admitted in 2007 that she had claimed degrees she hadn’t earned and in fact had never graduated from college, while the Yahoo chief executive officer was forced to step down in 2012 after it was revealed that his academic credentials did not add up.”

In line with the Industrial Revolution 4.0 , Unitar wants to produce highly skilled graduates ready to meet current market demand and have high academic integrity as we prepare for the future.

“As billionaire Warren Buffet once said, ‘In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities — integrity, intelligence and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you’.

“Although the challenge may be staggering, academic institutions and industries alike have no alternative but to come together and combat unethical practices. At the most basic is a robust process of certification verification while, at the same time, we need to understand reasons, the scope and the various implications brought upon by instances of academic dishonesty.”

SOLUTION

Last year, the Education Ministry launched an e-Scroll system based on blockchain technology to tackle the increasing number of fake degrees.

The ministry hopes that the “University Degree” issuance and “Verification System” can overcome the problem of degree falsification more effectively and will make the process of degree authentication more accessible and efficient.

Blockchain technology is secure and has the potential to increase efficiency in authenticating genuine certificates.

The system is developed by a team led by International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) Kulliyah of Information and Communication Technology Professor Datuk Dr Norbik Bashah Idris.

Norbik said the system uses the NEM Blockchain which is interrogated upon scanning of a QR code printed on the degree certificate

“Although such a system can also be built using other blockchains, NEM was chosen due to its unique features in managing traceability and authentication requirements.

“In the current implementation, a verification process can be done from anywhere in the world as long as there is Internet connectivity, and the process takes only a few seconds,” he added.

The first phase of implementation saw the degree certificates of all graduating IIUM doctoral students embedded into the blockchain.

Universiti Malaysia Pahang (UMP) also used blockchain technology for UMP Valid8, a mobile application to validate the authenticity of its 2,773 graduates who received their scrolls at its 13th convocation ceremony on Nov 10 and 11 last year at Gambang Campus Sports Complex.

Each certificate is equipped with a unique QR Code to ascertain the authenticity of the graduate’s certificate. Scanning the QR Code will display the graduate’s photo, full name, academic programme and year of graduation.

The system is developed to function as a record storage on the education information of UMP graduates. All data stored in blockchain form cannot be hacked or forged.

The idea to use blockchain technology was first mooted in January last year by the Council of ICT Deans of universities in the country.

IIUM has been appointed as head of the University Consortium on Blockchain Technology.

The members of the consortium consist of six public universities namely International Islamic University Malaysia, Universiti Utara Malaysia, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu and UiTM. The consortium aims to spread skills training and development of the technology among university students and academics.

“Nevertheless, technology alone will not put a stop to dishonest practices. When the public is indifferent to the value of integrity in education and there are unethical parties willing to deceive people for their own interest, this practice will never stop.

“In short, as long as there is a demand, there will be supply. Therefore, cooperation is needed from all quarters to monitor, report and take preventive measures to combat fraudsters.”