Monthly Archives: February 2019

Detecting Fake University Degrees in a Digital World

February 22nd, 2019

digiworld

As we prepare for the 2019 AICE Los Angeles Symposium on digital retention and transmission of academic documents, an issue that is of great concern is how do we maintain credential evaluation standards in a world that is rapidly digitizing? How do we ensure credential integrity? How do we detect fraudulent documents in an age where digital technology is used by hackers and forgers with tech expertise to falsify and issue counterfeit documents, tap into university databases, create degrees and diplomas that appear flawless and authentic?

The topic of the 2019 AICE Los Angeles Symposium is “The future is digital…are you? Effectively using technology while maintaining credential evaluation standards” is timely and will address the many stakeholders involved in the digital document process: the universities, governments, and third-party platforms, while delving into the existing eco-system, security and reliability of the current digital systems and discussing the available tools for digital credential verification. The goal of the symposium is to seek digital solutions that promote data security and protection as we move toward a paper-free environment.

In this week’s blog, we share an informative and insightful piece written by our European colleagues Stig Arne Skjerven, Director of Foreign Education in NOKUT and President of the ENIC Bureau in the European Network of Information Centers, a frequent contributor to ACE-Global.Blog, and Linda J Børresen, Senior Legal Advisor in NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC). The authors demonstrate steps being taken in Europe to combat fake diplomas in today’s digital world. This article appeared in the September 2018 issue of University World News and is shared in this blog with permission from Mr. Skjerven and Ms. Børresen.

We invite you to share your thoughts, experience, and questions in the comments section. Thank you.

jasmin_2015
Jasmin Saidi-Kuehnert is the President and CEO of the Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute (ACEI).

** ** **

Using fake diplomas in order to get ahead is not a new phenomenon. As long as there is competition for jobs and admission to higher education, there will be people who are willing to take such shortcuts.

Articles in University World News often report new cases, the most recent on fake Scottish degrees. Over the summer in the United Kingdom, there was an article published in The Guardian in which the UK’s official service for verifying degrees, the Higher Education Degree Datacheck (HEDD), urged new graduates who take selfies with their new degrees not to share the images on social media to avoid fueling the multimillion-pound trade in fake degrees.

What are fake diplomas?

Generally speaking, there are three categories of fake diplomas. The first category is typically a diploma that seems to be issued by an accredited institution, but the diploma is in fact produced illegally. The person who bought the document has never studied at the institution in question.

The second category comprises diplomas that are issued by accredited institutions, but the holder of the diploma has altered the information in the document, most commonly the grades.

The third and last category includes fake diplomas issued by diploma mills (fake universities). Diploma mills grant ‘degrees’ to people who pay for this service, but do not offer any educational training.

Fake diplomas can finance serious crime

The consequences of using fake diplomas are dire, ranging from wrongful job hires to illicit access to regulated professions. The latter can pose a danger to people and society, most obviously in the health, engineering and financial professions.

Just as worryingly, the income from sales of fake diplomas often finances serious crime. The court case in Norway following the terrorist attack on 22 July 2011 is a clear illustration. During the trial, the defendant admitted that he partly financed his terror operation by selling fake diplomas through the establishment of an internet site called Diplomaservice.com. Its revenue was nearly US$500,000, which was laundered in Antigua and subsequently used to finance his illicit activities.

How can we deal with fake diplomas?

In Norway, NOKUT is the Norwegian ENIC-NARIC center whose task it is to recognize foreign higher education qualifications in accordance with the Lisbon Recognition Convention. In order to combat the problem with fake diplomas, NOKUT has developed several tools, such as rigid documentation requirements and thorough quality assurance.

Verification is crucial and all diplomas are verified from certain countries, either by the issuing higher education institutions or by the ministry of education in that particular country. Equally important, NOKUT’s experienced credential evaluators are fluent in many languages and possess unique knowledge about various educational systems, enabling them to track logical inconsistencies in the applicants’ educational backgrounds.

Since 2003, 120 people have been reported to the police for using fake diplomas. This comes in addition to the number of cases that are reported by Norwegian higher education institutions and other competent authorities. NOKUT, as the ENIC-NARIC center, cooperates well with Norwegian law enforcement. Many of the reported cases have resulted in convictions, normally two to three weeks of unconditional imprisonment.

Most of these convictions are for regular falsified diplomas, but convictions for using documents from diploma mills are increasing.

The Council of Europe’s ETINED Platform

The ETINED Platform is a network of specialists appointed by member states of the Council of Europe and states party to the European Cultural Convention (50 states). The purpose of ETINED is to build a culture of ethics, transparency and integrity in and through education.

One aspect of this is combating fraud and corruption, including fraudulent qualifications. In this part of the project, cooperation between the ENIC and NARIC networks, the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) and the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education(EQAR) have been established.

Suggestions for changes to the subsidiary text to the Lisbon Recognition Convention are being considered. An example is the establishment of a database with a list of criteria that students should look for when checking qualifications proposed by an institution.

FRAUDOC – An Erasmus+ project

All over Europe, significant efforts have been made to detect fraudulent documents. Recently, an Erasmus+ funded project, FRAUDOC, led by the Italian ENIC-NARIC CIMEA, launched guidelines on diploma mills and documents fraud for credential evaluators. The guidelines give an overview of the phenomenon, but they also provide tools and recommendations on how fraudulent documents can be detected.

The same group has also launched a handbook for credential evaluators with information about verification databases and other suggestions that should help credential evaluators in their daily work.

The future is digital

Routines developed by ENIC-NARIC centers are helpful for combating the use of fake documents. However, even in the world of recognition and credential evaluation it is true that the future is digital – soon, most diplomas will be digitally accessible in secure systems which will guarantee documents’ authenticity.

Norway has digitalized all diplomas that have been issued by Norwegian institutions, with a few exceptions, in an online portal called Vitnemålsportalen. Graduates can provide secure and time-limited access to their data to an employer through an electronic link. This procedure ensures the authenticity of the documents and is a safe and cost-effective way for an employer to verify someone’s credentials.

Other systems, at varying stages of development, are in operation in AustraliaBelgium (Flanders), ChinaEstoniaFranceIndiaMexicothe NetherlandsNew ZealandRomania, the Russian FederationSouth Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The network of EMREX aims to further connect and enhance student data portability and provide student data globally. EMREX empowers individuals to manage their student data and to transfer credentials securely to employers, institutions and more.

Fake diplomas will continue to pose a threat to higher education institutions, employers and recognition authorities in the years to come. However, recent initiatives involving digital diplomas in secure databases may be one of the most promising ways to combat false diplomas in the future.

stig

Stig Arne Skjerven is the Director of Foreign Education in NOKUT and President of the ENIC Bureau in the European Network of Information Centres.

lindab

Linda J Børresen is Senior Legal Advisor in NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC). 

ACEI Logo with Slogan - FINAL

The Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute, Inc. (ACEI), was founded in 1994 and is based in Los Angeles, CA, USA. ACEI provides a number of services that include evaluations of international academic credentials for U.S. educational equivalence, translation, verification, and professional training programs. ACEI is a Charter and Endorsed Member of the Association of International Credential Evaluators. For more information, visit www.acei-global.org.

Leave a comment

Filed under Credentials, Education, technology

Institutional Accreditation: A Standard Under Attack? Misunderstood? Ignored?

February 15th, 2019

iaasuami

Last year, the Association of International Credential Evaluators (AICE), of which ACEI is an Endorsed Member, hosted its annual Symposium in Orlando, FL and tackled the issue of institutional Accreditation.  Those of us in the credential evaluation field live and breath accreditation. Determining an international institution’s recognition status is the first step any junior or seasoned credential evaluator takes. It is what sets an international school or institution of higher education on a par with its accredited counterpart in the U.S. There are many types of accreditation in the U.S. and I will not go into each of them in this blog (CHEA would be a good source to visit for details), but the one we focus on and use as the standard is regional accreditation.

Unlike most countries where the Ministry of Education is responsible for the oversight and recognition of schools and institutions of higher education, the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) does not have this authority. It does, however, recognize accreditation boards and provides this information to the public. In most countries, when evaluating international credentials, we look to see if the studies were completed at an institution that is formally recognized and endorsed by the country’s Ministry of Education (MOE). I’m over simplifying but as I said, in most cases, we look for MOE recognition.

Lately, I see there’s a disconnect between educators, school/college counselors, and admissions professionals in relation to accreditation. In some cases, it’s an afterthought or entirely forgotten. As if accreditation is a bad thing, a nuisance. I even find that many, even those in the education sector, are unfamiliar with what is meant by accreditation and the different types of accreditation available in the U.S., especially regional. For example, I recently read a question in a forum intended for admissions officers at local colleges here in Southern California about a “university” in Downtown Los Angeles. The individual was asking whether anyone had heard about it and did not even consider checking the list of regionally accredited institutions CHEA has available on its website. A quick online search found this so-called university to be nothing but a diploma mill with a defunct website.

Everyone involved in education or counseling students for further education must, I repeat, must keep this link handy for reference.  The USDE also dedicates a page to Diploma Mills and Accreditation. Many of you who follow my posts on this blog know that I frequently write about Diploma and Accreditation Mills, warning fellow credential evaluators, educators, admissions officers, counselor, and prospective students against the perils of falling prey to these fraudulent entities.

Every day, I come across news of yet another individual holding a prominent position in government, whether here in the U.S. or overseas who has been discovered to have a degree from a diploma mill or misrepresented him/herself as a degree holder from an institution never attended. Examples abound, but I’ll share a couple in this blog. First, there is the Deputy Foreign Minister of Malaysia who had falsely claimed to have a degree from the prestigious University of Cambridge in the UK. He has now admitted that he had misspoken and his degree is from Cambridge International University in the U.S., which is still dubious in status given it lacks regional accreditation by one of the accreditation boards recognized by the US Department of Education. A little digging on the Internet shows it to be yet another diploma mill. Read this piece and you’ll see all the red flags. Click here.

Next, we have Nigeria where the Minister of Education announced last month that the government will shut down and demolish 68, I repeat, 68, institutions discovered to be operating illegally and without accreditation and will apprehend and prosecute their owners.  What is disconcerting is the following quote in the article posted by University World News: “Some academics are asking if closing down “illegal” universities is the answer, in view of the inability of Nigeria’s current legally-established universities to absorb the number of school leavers wanting places.”  Begs the question, have we slipped so far down the slippery slope of mediocrity that attending a sub-standard “university” or one operating illegally is better than none at all?

Accreditation in the U.S. is also under scrutiny. The USDE, under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, released newly proposed changes to rewrite several rules concerning regulation of colleges, universities, and their respective accrediting agencies. The proposed changes would loosen federal oversight of these institutions.  In an article for Inside Higher Education, a former for-profit college executive speaks out against plans by the USDE to weaken requirements for oversight of college quality. It’s a disturbing expose of the misappropriation of funds and other unethical activities.  Just as I was about to post this blog, a new report came out by Inside Higher Education that USDE is rolling back or toning down some of its proposed changes in the face of strong opposition.

Right now, the jury is out as to how USDE’s proposed changes will impact accreditation regulations. Personally, I don’t have a good feeling about the direction it is headed. Do we really want less oversight of our schools, universities, and accrediting agencies given the proliferation of questionable for-profit schools and the booming diploma mill industry?

Additional Links:

https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=b024016f-e13c-4897-8290-817c71b7a3f1

http://www.insightintodiversity.com/u-s-department-of-education-plans-to-overhaul-several-college-accreditation-rules/

jasmin_2015
Jasmin Saidi-Kuehnert is the President and CEO of the Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute (ACEI).

ACEI Logo with Slogan - FINAL

The Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute, Inc. (ACEI), was founded in 1994 and is based in Los Angeles, CA, USA. ACEI provides a number of services that include evaluations of international academic credentials for U.S. educational equivalence, translation, verification, and professional training programs. ACEI is a Charter and Endorsed Member of the Association of International Credential Evaluators. For more information, visit www.acei-global.org.

Leave a comment

Filed under Credentials, Education

Fighting Diploma Fraud & Protecting Credential Integrity with Technology

February 8th, 2019

blockchain

Diploma mills are here to stay as long as there is little or no regulation monitoring them and there is a demand for degrees which do not require classroom or online attendance, exams, research papers or thesis.  Fake degrees are purchased from online sites offering an à la carte menu of “products” at a fraction of the cost of an actual earned academic degree. Their websites can range from the tacky, cluttered with advertisements to the sophisticated boasting a litany of institutional accreditations with equally fraudulent accrediting entities. Individuals visiting these sites can select a degree of their choice in their preferred major from the menu and even select their graduation date.  They can order class rings, mugs, sweatshirts and other paraphernalia with the fake university’s emblem. At the strike of a few keys on the keyboard, and payment of fees with a credit card, they walk away with the promise of a Bachelor, Master, and even a Ph.D.  As employers post job openings requiring degrees, and in most cases, advanced degrees such as a Master’s or Ph.D., the absence of an earned credential has driven many to willingly seek a diploma mill or fall prey to sales schemes and tactics that lure the naïve and unsuspecting consumer to purchase a degree they were promised from what they assumed to be a prestigious, though non-existent, university.

Earlier this week, we came across a question on an online quorum where a counselor at a local community college here in California was asking about a “university” a student at his college was considering transferring to because, and I quote, “he could get a bachelor’s quickly.” The college counselor could not find any information on the so-called university that cited its physical address in the Downtown Los Angeles area.  A quick search on the Internet took me to the university’s website that was “under maintenance” and thanks to GooleMaps, found its campus to be a strip mall with a “For Lease” sign posted on the door. I warned the college counselor to advise his students against applying to this university as it was not regionally accredited and most likely a diploma mill.

And, just when we thought diploma mills are set up by nefarious entities, we recently learned that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had set up a fake university in Michigan to crack down on illicit operations allowing foreign citizens to stay in the U.S. illegally. The sting operation was to catch recruiters and others engaging in immigration fraud. Indictments were issued with charges of conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit. Fighting fraud with fraud. To read more, click here

Clearly, there is a market for fake degrees. Where there is demand, there is supply. And it’s proven to be a very lucrative industry…a billion-dollar industry.

What is being done to protect against fraud when it comes to academic credentials?

Blockchain Platforms

1blockchain

We are beginning to hear about Blockchain technology being used as a platform to help combat against falsified diplomas and certificates. There are several companies offering Blockchain platform to address this issue. One that I read about recently is EchoLink Foundation that has designed the EKO Blockchain Platform with the goal to provide verified education, skill, and work experience information. To avoid tampering from third parties, EchoLink Foundation allows only approved educational, training, and other institutions access to enter their information. To read more, click here and for learn more about for more on how universities are adopting blockchain technology , click here.

There are many institutions and countries that have adopted digital platforms for the secure archival, verification and transmission of their academic credentials. Here’s a partial list of  countries that have sprung into action by using technology to fight against fraud and protect credential integrity:

Republic of Georgia

The Business and Technology University in Tbilisi, Georgia has implemented an educational credential verification system using the blockchain technology powered by Emercoin. To learn more, click here

Russia

We just learned that the Russian Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Education and Science, (Rosobrnadzor) will implement blockchain technology in the country’s main graduation examination. To learn more, click here

Caribbean Examination Council:

In November 2018, the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) started distributing blockchain-based certificates to “24,000 shortlisted candidates” to ensure a faster verification process of educational credentials. To learn more, click here

South Africa

Fake degree from diploma mills is one problem, the other is falsification of academic documents from legitimate institutions. South Africa is taking steps to tackle fake degrees and its universities have the ability to verify qualifications through a fully-automated centralized online degree verification systems called MiE. To learn more, click here

Switzerland

In 2018, University of Basel started using blockchain technology to protect and verify academic credentials. It has partnered with the Center for Innovative Finance, a research group within the University of Basel which focuses on financial technology and another company called Proxeus. This partnership is intended to end reliance on traditional paper-transcripts and adopt a digital platform for the archiving and distribution of academic credentials. To learn more, click here

This is just a sample of countries and steps they’ve taken to protect against credential fraud. In future blogs, we will showcase other digital platforms set up by institutions, third party providers, and governments to protect against falsification of academic documents.

As technology progresses, so do the entities operating diploma mills. They are using sophisticated tools to reproduce believable documents. At the same time, institutions and some countries are taking measures to fight these mills by taking advantage of advances made in technology.

Is the blockchain platform for credential verification deemed effective? It’s too early to tell, but according to retired FBI Agent, Allen Ezell, “as long as everyone gets on board and participates, it may be practical towards the future. (Similar to a chain link fence, with electronic record keeping.) Also, keeping out just one rogue entity will also keep the ‘chain’ trustworthy.”

jasmin_2015
Jasmin Saidi-Kuehnert is the President and CEO of the Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute (ACEI).

ACEI Logo with Slogan - FINAL

The Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute, Inc. (ACEI), was founded in 1994 and is based in Los Angeles, CA, USA. ACEI provides a number of services that include evaluations of international academic credentials for U.S. educational equivalence, translation, verification, and professional training programs. ACEI is a Charter and Endorsed Member of the Association of International Credential Evaluators. For more information, visit www.acei-global.org.

Leave a comment

Filed under Credentials, Education, technology

Venezuela: Education in Crisis

February 1st, 2019

venezuela

Venezuela’s deep political and economic crisis is in recent news headlines with reports on daily protests, violent repression of those opposing the Madura presidency, fomenting international tensions.  For an unbiased analysis of the current situation in Venezuela, click here. In this week’s blog post, we take a look at Venezuela’s education system and how it has been impacted by the crisis.

For decades, Venezuela’s standard of education had been ranked among the highest in the region. And, although the country’s education system is overextended and underfunded, the government had remained committed to the vision that every citizen is entitled to a free education.

The Ministry of Education was and still is the authority responsible for oversight and regulation of education in Venezuela which is highly centralized. Students are required to attend school from the age of 6 and complete the first cycle known as basic education (educación básica) which is free and compulsory. After which, they can continue onto secondary school (educación media diversificada) for another two years and receive the bachiller.  Secondary students also have the option to pursue a two-to three-year specialized curriculum (educación media profesional) that leads to the award of a technical degree.

Under the 1999 constitution, higher education in Venezuela remains free with access to more than 90 institutions of higher education.  Caracas is an educational center and home to several notable universities, including the Central University of Venezuela (founded in 1721) and the National Open University (1977). Other prominent state institutions are the University of Zulia (1936), the University of Carabobo (1852), and the University of Andes in Merida (1810).

Once among the top countries in the region for its strong education system, we can see the negative effects the economic crisis has and continues to have on Venezuela’s institutions of higher education.  A 2015 report from Associated Press recounted that many faculty members were quitting jobs as they were unable to support themselves on government-mandated salaries that are as low as the equivalent of US$30 a month. According to the article, the Central University of Venezuela lost 700 faculty members out of a total 4,000, an exodus that begun four years prior to 2015. The situation has not improved.

Tense relations between U.S. and Venezuela has also hurt study abroad and student exchange programs. In September 2018, the U.S. issued a presidential proclamation outlining new restrictions to the travel ban for nationals of eight countries that include Chad, Libya, Iran, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen — and also recommended that nationals from Iraq be subjected to additional scrutiny. The restrictions imposed by the travel ban have made it difficult for Venezuelans to obtain visas as students, tourists, or for business. To see how the travel ban and the latest restrictions have affected the number of visas issued to Venezuelan students, click here. A recent article in PIE News  includes an interview with an educational counseling service based in Miami, FL that assists Venezuelan students, offers a bleak perspective on the current situation.

The interactive chart on World Inequality Database on Education created by UNESCO Institute for Statistics provides an up-to-date glimpse on the state of primary and secondary education in Venezuela.

We highly recommend this in-depth article about the state of higher education in Venezuela, the continued exodus of university faculty, and the Bolivarian University of Venezuela that was founded 15 years ago during Hugo Chavez’s presidency as an institution of higher education intended to be more inclusive and afford access to the underprivileged and poor, which too is suffering under the strains of economic austerity.

venezuela_1

There are also reports of massive desertion of students from universities. One report in 2017 said that close to 50% of university students had dropped out of the three public universities in Táchira.

venezuela_2

It’s not only public universities experiencing faculty and student desertions; private universities too report students dropping out and leaving the institutions. Not only do students and faculty blame the economic crisis for their decisions to leave the institutions but they also claim lack of academic freedom and university autonomy as additional reasons for their departure.

venezuela_3

We will continue to post updates on Venezuela’s education system as information becomes available.

Sources:

Encyclopedia Britanica https://www.britannica.com/place/Venezuela/Education

The Nation https://www.thenation.com/article/how-severe-is-venezuelas-crisis/

PIE News https://thepienews.com/news/education-agency-venezuela-calls-for-industry-support/

The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/30/world/americas/venezuela-maduro-protests-faes.html?rref=co               

llection%2Ftimestopic%2FVenezuela&action=click&contentCollection=world&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection

US Department of State: https://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/35766.htm

World Inequality Database on Education: https://www.education-inequalities.org/countries/venezuelarb/indicators/eduout_upsec#?dimension=all&group=all&age_group=|eduout_upsec&year=|2000UNESCO

Washington Office on Latin America: https://venezuelablog.org/higher-education-venezuela-skirting-university-autonomy-creation-parallel-system/

ACEI Logo with Slogan - FINAL

The Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute, Inc. (ACEI), was founded in 1994 and is based in Los Angeles, CA, USA. ACEI provides a number of services that include evaluations of international academic credentials for U.S. educational equivalence, translation, verification, and professional training programs. ACEI is a Charter and Endorsed Member of the Association of International Credential Evaluators. For more information, visit www.acei-global.org.

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, News, Politics