Fighting Credential Fraud
A Brief Critique of Australian and American Approaches to Qualification Verification and Authentication
By George Brown
Credentials are everywhere, and are important signifiers of an individual’s competence and/or bona fides. Each day, we use PIN numbers to access our accounts, sign letters to authenticate documents, and use currency from our pockets in exchange for goods and services. Identification and authentication of these passwords, documents and currency is essential for us to operate in society, and we place trust in these items of value. For academic credentials, the same trust and value is apparent. Seen as letters or certificates that establish the position, authority or identity of the bearer (Buon and Compton 1990), certification attested to by diplomas and degrees is becoming extremely important. Identity, and more importantly, true identity are essential pre-requisites before associating with an individual in a globalized world, a world where individuals pass freely between borders and undertake roles of assumed competence. This paper will discuss the challenges posed by determining authenticity from a higher education perspective, and provide some insights into a world of trust which is gradually being eroded by fraud.
Qualifications as credentials and the credentialing process
At the core of any higher education system lies the credentialing process (Stodt and Thielens 1985), a process historically entrusted to universities and other duly accredited higher education providers. Upon graduation from a higher education institution, an individual is generally issued with two main types of documents as part of the credentialing process – a transcript which shows the complete and unabridged academic history of a degree holder and a testamur which shows details of the degree awarded (Shutt 1986). These documents are then used by the individual as proof of participation, and attainment of certain levels of academic merit. Indeed, degree qualifications, just like birth certificates, passports and social security cards, can be seen as items of valuable, personal property (Noah and Eckstein 2001). Marginson (2004a, p.7; 2004b) has asserted that the value imbued within a degree qualification be seen as a positional good, an item that confers advantages on some individuals, but denies those advantages to others. Given that status and prestige are important aspects of the credentialing function, degrees can be seen as assisting in social mobility, performing a sorting process which provides a ‘ticket to ride’ (Kalantzis 1988, p.5), or a ‘ticket for entry’ (Davis 1981, p.659) either into employment or further study. Degree qualifications therefore signal to society (or, more importantly, to the prospective employers and other evaluators) that an individual possesses certain skills and knowledge, which are perhaps not present in his/her ‘competition’.
The use of academic credentials as a screening tool has been well documented, especially by Dore (1976, p.85), who contended that the ‘bright people’ got higher up the educational ladder, obtained higher educational records, and subsequently received higher wages. He argued that the resulting higher wages were not due solely to this ‘brightness’, but helped along strongly by employers sighting the educational records they produced. As such, employers expected them to be bright and provided opportunities to those that held these credentials. Dore (1976) therefore hypothesized that academic records were a proxy measure of underlying ability, and the use of these documents became institutionalized as an essential criterion in official hiring rules within organizations. The author asserts that the same analogy can be made to higher education institutions around the world. Each sets out clear pre-requisites for its programs, and explicitly states the required qualification for entry either into its under or postgraduate programs. Just how should these credentials thusly be evaluated? The following section will address the challenges of qualification verification and authentication.
Qualification verification and authentication; challenges in the evaluation process
The credential evaluation process consists of two equally important, but distinctly different steps. When a qualification is presented, it must be assessed for both acceptability and authenticity. While the authentication process may be as simple as a phone call to the conferring institution, determining the correct individual in the organization and the challenges of privacy consume time and money in the admissions process. By the same token, determining acceptability is equally as challenging. Where one qualification may be acceptable for one particular organization, another may not. This ‘grey area’ in qualification acceptability and authenticity has created many challenges for both evaluators and the participants who pursue higher education programs. In order to delineate between providers, the only useful tool appears to be the use of continuums of legitimacy and acceptability, with judgments on qualifications falling to the individual assessor (Ezell and Bear 2005; Brown 2006):
Figure 1: The Continuum Models of Legitimacy and Acceptability of higher education qualifications
At the far left of the continuums, traditional higher education institutions exist, duly accredited and/or recognized by their respective Ministries of Education. The use of a variety of guides and resources published by government agencies allow for clear identification of these institutions. Within the center of the continuums, however, the lines blur and become clouded, a problem which Bear and Bear (2003) have previously defined as being ‘miscellaneous’ institutions. Universities such as Pebble Hills University (www.pebblehills.edu) offer degrees in a variety of fields, claiming incorporation in The Principality of Hutt River Province, Western Australia and licensure to grant degrees from The Principality of Seborga, an independent sovereign state of Italy. The degrees are taught at learning centers in The Knowledge Village, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Taiwan, and Lebanon. Further down the continuum a company called Instantdegrees (www.instantdegrees.com) offers a full range of qualifications conferred from Buxton University, Bridgewater University and Canterbury University. These universities are legal entities incorporated in the Seychelles, empowered to confer degrees via their articles of incorporation. In order to obtain one of these degrees, all one must do is submit the required fee and provide an employment background, which is not verified (Anderson 2004; Bishop 2004; Rutledge 2004). An Apostille service is also provided designed to legitimize, validate and essentially ‘authenticate’ the purchased documents. It is important to note that neither of these qualification providers operates illegally; their degrees are clearly acceptable to some and are provided, unhindered, via the Internet and within various jurisdictions. Where they sit on the continuums is, however, a purely individual and debatable determination. While the continuum approach provides a useful model to help explain the qualification verification and authentication quandary, it would be interesting to determine if stakeholders do actually undertake this evaluation task; the following section will address this issue.
Do stakeholders verify? Empirical evidence from Australia and the United States
A recent study undertaken by the author found that 81% of all private higher education providers in Australia verified the acceptability and 77% verified the authenticity of undergraduate qualifications submitted as prerequisites for entry into their postgraduate programs. This is in stark contrast to recruitment agencies across Australia and New Zealand. Of these, 66% did not verify the acceptability and 55% did not determine the authenticity of degree qualifications presented and required for employment positions. Of those that did check on the authenticity, 70% accepted a standard photocopy, while 90% accepted original copies of transcripts and testamur directly from the candidate. Furthermore, 73% accepted education claims made by the candidate in their curriculum vitae without requiring further documentation. These findings correlate with research conducted by Cole, Field & Giles (2003) who found that the majority of employment evaluations were based primarily on information provided in a resume; little external validation was used in the verification process.
Within the United States, similar statistics raise concerns about qualification fraud, in this instance, from verification undertaken by prospective employers. A study undertaken by Srip-Safe (a US based provider of security paper designed for academic transcripts) was undertaken between September 1994 and February 1995. An average of 50 higher education institutions participated in the study. The institutions were asked to collate the number of degree verification inquiries they fielded and the percentage of negative responses they issued. Based on their findings, the researchers estimated that close to 500,000 individuals across the United States lied to prospective employers each year about having graduated from a higher education institution (Scrip-Safe 1995; Foster 2003).
From a recruitment perspective, a study conducted by Christian & Timber involving over 7,000 resumes found 52% of candidates had claimed their partial degrees as full degrees (McGee 2002). These statistics raise concern, but importantly, some more interesting questions. Why is such due diligence paid to verification and authentication of qualifications by higher education providers and less attention by recruitment agencies? Is it not employers who are driving the demand for qualified and skilled graduates? As such, should they not be more concerned with the verification process? Studies such as those undertaken by Ugbah & Majors (1992) have found that employers valued the academic credentials of candidates as the most important criterion for hiring decisions, second to an applicant’s behaviors and social skills. If this is the case, then why is such little attention paid to determining the bona fides of qualifications presented by prospective employees? The determination of acceptability as well as authenticity is paramount, especially in the current age of technology and resume screening. As outlined by Ezell and Bear (2005, p.126) recruitment practices have moved to such extremes that major employers now use resume-scanning software in order to cull through the multitudes of curriculum vitae’s received for positions. Suggesting that an applicant could receive a rejection letter without the application ever have being seen by a human (as they did not hold one of the criterion – a degree), they criticized the process as ‘…the software is not nearly as likely to ‘know’ that Trinity University can mean the real one in Texas or the bogus one that operated from South Dakota.’
Australian and American approaches to the qualification authentication quandary
Higher education providers in the United States have traditionally outsourced the verification of its conferred qualifications. Due to the volume of verifications requiring attention, companies such as the National Student Clearinghouse (www.degreeverify.com), Credentials Inc (www.degreechk.com) and EdVerify (which appears to have ceased operating), have taken up the challenge. While providing an income stream to both the higher education institution and the verification company, devolving both the risk and overheads to a third party is an interesting business model.
In a similar vein, though not as nearly advanced at this stage, Australia has welcomed the release of Qualsearch (www.qualsearch.com.au), an online authentication system designed to assess claims of Australian qualifications conferred by Australian universities. Borne out of technology pioneered by Queensland Tertiary Admissions Centre (QTAC), the system draws on an existing platform facilitating third party queries to be performed via an online portal. The pilot study conducted with a select range of Queensland institutions and members of the Recruitment and Consulting Services Association of Australia (RCSA) has been completed and the system is due to be rolled out across Australia later in 2005. In the meantime, other institutions have been making attempts to provide authentication approaches. The University of Melbourne makes its entire graduation lists freely accessible as a searchable database at https://sis.unimelb.edu.au/cgi-bin/awards.pl, while the University of Wollongong has its graduate lists available at www.uow.edu.au/student/graduation/gradroll.html, although these are only available from 2001. Other state-based initiatives include South Australia and Tasmania which have developed (or are in the process of developing) a Client Qualification Register, designed to hold a central digitized repository of all qualifications conferred from all levels of education (Foreshaw 2005). Presently, it is unclear if this information will be opened up and accessible for third party enquiries to be permitted.
With China being an important and emerging market for student recruitment, concerns have consistently been raised as to the authenticity of claimed qualifications. In a recent development, VETASSES (acronym for Vocational Education, Training Assessment) based in Victoria has been appointed the first agent outside of China to authenticate Chinese qualifications. Applications can be lodged online via their site at www.qualverify.com with charges at about A$60.00 per verification. Appearing to be in competition with this product, Hobsons Service Centre Australia www.hobsons.com/aus/service is currently piloting a project entitled ‘Qualifications Verification’ with Macquarie and Swinburne Universities. Having commenced in July this year, each of the participating universities periodically sends a batch of Chinese student applications (undergraduate and postgraduate) to the service center for random verification. Once the pilot project is reviewed, it is envisaged that a further six more universities, including the University of Technology Sydney will join the next phase, with a total of fourteen universities participating in the program.
In relation to document security, RMIT University in Vietnam is one of the first Australian providers to use polymer banknote technology in order to minimize fraudulent alterations on issued transcripts and testamurs (Overland 2004). Such pioneering moves have stirred interest from South Australian universities, some of which are investigating the options and benefits this technology provides (Cox 2005). Currently five Australian universities have signed up to the polymer technology, a service provided by Note Printing Australia based in Victoria. In relation to policy initiatives, Macquarie University is perhaps one of the most innovate institutions, having developed a comprehensive policy and procedure addressing the problem of fraudulent qualifications being used for admission to its programs. While in draft form, it is a firm step in the right direction for addressing the problem.
Conclusions and implications
It is without doubt that higher education credentials are valuable items. While research demonstrates that qualifications assist in social mobility and employers require them for certain employment positions, the attention placed on determining their acceptability and authenticity does not appear to be commensurate to that of the private higher education sector. The proliferation of unrecognized providers and burgeoning supply of fraudulent, replica testamurs and transcripts clearly demonstrates that a risk minimization strategy is imperative so that practices are in place in order to protect this valuable industry.
While this paper has argued that Australia is deemed to be progressing well in the area of qualification verification, it would be wise for Australia to look to the United States for guidance in their verification procedures. Within Australia, the introduction of Qualsearch, the Chinese authentication service and polymer paper technology only apply to those institutions that wish to participate. While a voluntary system is also prevalent in the United States, the trust placed within these agencies and the coverage is impressive. In Australia, cost implications and voluntary participation in the methodologies being provided may create confusion for stakeholders who seek to employ best practice approaches. It is clear that the Australian higher education and employment sectors are in need of a systematic approach to qualification verification and authentication. Continued research, and coherent national and international collaboration in this area is imperative in order to proactively manage this global problem.
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George Brown is Director of HigherEd Consulting (Australasia) and fulltime PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide, South Australia. George’s research concentrates on the burgeoning phenomenon of diploma mills, replica testamur providers and the use of these credentials in employment and higher education settings. George can be contacted through his website at www.HigherEdConsulting.com.au.