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Rising number of fake universities a risk to Britain’s best?

Ed Seaford looks at what the increasing number of fake universities means for Britain’s institutions

For hundreds of years, the UK has been ahead of the game in terms of the best universities in the world, with The University of Oxford thought to have been founded in the late 11th-early 12th century. Fast forward almost a millennium and we are now seeing increasing numbers of fake universities being created and shut down as a result of mis-selling fraudulent degrees to students.

The university watchdog Higher Education Degree Datacheck (HEDD) has identified a total of 62 bogus institutions in the last year alone. This is not only disappointing for the UK’s hardworking students who have truly earned their degree, but it also throws up several issues in terms of reputation for the 130 genuine universities located across the UK.

The increasing issue

 Aside from the most recent HEDD investigation into this matter, several incidents involving bogus universities have already occurred this year on a global scale. In April, China’s official news agency Xinhua reported 30 ‘fake universities’ across 12 provinces, which tricked prospective students into sending tuition fees to companies that were posing as legitimate higher education providers. Even more recently, 22 fake universities in India were revealed by the University Grants Commission (UGC) in May of this year, which were all in breach of the UGC Act for using the word ‘university’.

On the flipside of this, the US Department of Homeland Security actually set up its own fake institution, the University of Northern New Jersey, as part of a sting operation to catch perpetrators of student visa scams. The ‘university’ had its own website, Facebook page, a number of business degree options, a listed address and even a seal containing the Latin ‘Humanus, Scientia, Integritas’.

Whilst this particular university was used for investigative purposes and awarded no degrees during its three year existence, this demonstrates just how easy it is to set up a fake institution and convince others of its genuineness with just a bit of online know-how.

Spotting a scam

In many cases, fraudsters will set up an entire fake website for an institution, using a domain name that is identical or confusingly similar to that of an authentic university. For example, the ‘University of Wolverhamton’ was recently outed as a fake digital version of the genuine ‘University of Wolverhampton’ in the West Midlands. 

These subtle differences can be the key for students looking at universities online. In the UK, academic institutions use the second-level domain ‘.ac’, meaning that a majority of the country’s universities have websites ending in ‘.ac.uk’. There are strict eligibility rules for this particular type of domain, and it is managed in such a way that it is only given to organisations recognised as having degree awarding powers in the UK, or funded by education councils in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to provide higher education. As such, students looking at universities online which have the ‘.ac.uk’ domain can rest assured that they are applying to the genuine article. 

What can universities do?

Virtually all universities are, understandably, concerned with upholding and protecting their brand, and a majority of them are currently under cyber attack in multiple ways. The good news is that there are steps which all brand holders, including universities, can take against online fraudsters and brand infringers, particularly if a fake institution is utilising pages taken from genuine university websites.

First, universities should take stock of their online brand presence, including all websites, social media and mobile platforms. By implementing a basic online brand monitoring tool, genuine institutions can filter various threats to their brands and trademarks, to see what is being used elsewhere.

Secondly, ensuring that students do not post pictures online of their degree certificates in their graduation photos is also a must. Fraudsters setting up fake universities scour the internet for these photographs in search of the most up to date degree certificate designs. In this way, logos, crests and holograms can be easily copied onto fake certificates and then passed off as the genuine ticket to unwitting students.

With the reputation of the UK’s genuine universities on the line with every fake institution created, it is time for these organisations to monitor their online presence carefully and consistently, and identify the occasions when their logo or crest are used on the internet without their consent. HEDD is working around the clock to suspend and investigate these bogus websites, but the more that universities can do to proactively protect their brand, the better.

Ed Seaford is the Vice President of Brand Protection and Sales at NetNames

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