Fraudulently speaking…

Will new degree-awarding powers make matters worse asks Smita Jamdar at Shakespeare Martineau?

Degree fraud is on the rise in the UK and concern is growing that the Higher Education Bill could make matters worse. If the higher education sector is going to protect its excellent reputation, more resources may be needed to tackle the problem.

The watchdog set up to monitor degree fraud, Higher Education Degree Datacheck (Hedd), has recently reported a 16% year-on-year increase in degree fraud. No fewer than 32 fake UK institutions have been closed down in the past year as a result of law enforcement action taken by the police or by trading standards. A further 30 potential cases of degree fraud, which came to light over the past year, have been investigated or remain subject to investigation.

With growing questions about the value of a university education, it is more vital than ever that employers can continue to trust UK degrees and view them as a reliable indication of an individual’s skills and abilities

Despite the action being taken to crackdown on degree fraud, it is thought that a substantial amount remains undetected and unreported. Part of the problem is the diverse nature of the crimes committed. On the one hand, there are bogus institutions, which are established as internet-based businesses, solely for the purpose of selling fake UK degrees. Other institutions might be delivering some level of educational services but misleading students into thinking that they have degree-awarding powers when they do not.

Some of these organisations are based in the UK while others are run by operators based overseas. Sometimes it is individuals who are deliberately misrepresenting the class of degree they have secured: now that a 2:2 is seen as almost worthless in some job markets, the temptation to lie about the degree classification secured may be too much for some people.

While it is undeniably difficult to identify such crime (these are after all matters of fraud and statutory breach) and bring prosecutions, the most rigorous efforts possible must be made to do so. With growing questions about the value of a university education, it is more vital than ever that employers can continue to trust UK degrees and view them as a reliable indication of an individual’s skills and abilities. While Hedd is playing an important role in raising awareness of degree fraud, its growing incidence suggests more resources are needed to tackle the problem. In particular, the cross border nature of many of the crimes committed means international cooperation and enforcement action is necessary.

Institutions also need to consider what action they can take if they find that applicants or graduates have misrepresented their qualifications. Revoking a degree is a possible remedy but the process for achieving that is not clearly defined or legally straightforward, and so needs some careful thought. There also needs to be co-operation between institutions to share data about fraudulent applications and misrepresented qualifications.

At a time when degree fraud is growing, some sector experts are concerned that the Higher Education Bill, which is aiming to open up the sector to new providers, could add to the problem. In particular, the legislation will make it easier for new start-up operators to obtain degree-awarding powers. This, it has been suggested, could lead to a sharp increase in the number of institutions granting UK degrees, which could in turn lead to employer confusion and create a gateway of opportunity for bogus operators.

In reality, the legislation may not be as damaging as some believe. The government has been keen to stress that in order to secure degree-awarding powers, operators would still need to demonstrate some form a track record of delivering quality educational services. This would it is to be hoped filter out criminals who are simply out to sell fake degrees.

Whatever the risk posed by the Higher Education Bill, degree fraud must be acknowledged and taken seriously. Its potential to cause reputational damage to the sector is real and the issue must be tackled in a joined up way – by educationalists and policy-makers alike.

Smita Jamdar is partner and Head of Education at Shakespeare Martineau.

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