Academic Fraud, Corruption, and Implications for Credential Assessment

In October of 2017, universities around the world participated in the second annual “international day of action against contract cheating” sponsored by the “International Center for Academic Integrity [2].” The event reflected growing concern about an upsurge in educational fraud, which threatens to devalue higher education and undermine academic integrity, as well as harm students and institutional reputations alike.

Fraud and corruption in education exist in various forms beyond contract-cheating. Its global manifestations include diploma mills and the counterfeiting of academic documents, as well as bribery to ensure the licensing of academic institutions, the hiring of academic staff, the passing of examinations, admission into education programs and the award of degrees.

The problem is an urgent one. From an institutional perspective, the ramifications of failure to address fraud and corrupt practices are sometimes severe. The most prominent example may be the University of Wales, which was abolished in 2011 [3] because it ran degree validation programs with dubious or downright illegal overseas partner institutions. Dickinson State University in North Dakota was placed on notice [4] by its accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission after it came out that the university had been graduating international students from to-up programs with Chinese and Russian partner institutions without authenticated documents or appropriate academic prerequisites [5].

Reputational damage is another risk of insufficient controls for vetting students’ qualifications. Western Kentucky University, for instance, was in 2016 forced to suspend almost half of its international graduate students recruited by an India-based agent – an episode documented by the New York Times. After admission offers were made, it turned out that the students did not meet admission standards and were academically unfit [6], despite remedial assistance. The institution accrued both real and opportunity costs, and loss of tuition revenues, and risked a deterioration of educational quality. Just as devastating was the impact on the students who were in danger of losing their visas and investments into education abroad.

For private companies and the government, the employment of individuals with bogus credentials can be a public relations fiasco. And yet, accounts of persons being employed in critical positions based on fake degrees surface regularly in the news, be it at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security [7] or the National Nuclear Security Administration [8].

What can academic institutions and others do to guard against fraud? At the most basic level, the solution involves robust processes for vetting student qualifications. But just as important is understanding the size and scope of the problem, its variations, and the hotspots where it occurs. Lasting solutions demand both vigilance and creativity on the part of admissions personnel, institutions, governments, and others.

This article examines worldwide examples of academic corruption and fraud, addresses implications for international enrollment managers and credential evaluators and offers examples of safeguards against falling prey to fraudulent behavior.

NOTE: Because of the scarcity of quantitative data on academic fraud, many examples are inevitably anecdotal and do not necessarily reflect predominant patterns in education systems otherwise characterized by ethical practices. Neither can the list possibly be complete – an entire book could be filled with publicized incidents alone. The examples should, however, demonstrate that corruption and fraud are growing problems that international educators should pay close attention to.

An infographic showing how credential evaluators can address issues arising from academic corruption [9]

Scoping the Problem

There’s little doubt that the incidence of academic fraud and corruption is growing worldwide [10]. Advances in technology, the rapid growth of international student mobility, and the globalization and commodification of education have made fraudulent academic activity more routine while rendering detection more difficult. (For a more thorough overview of the causes of corruption, see our related article in this month’s issue of WENR).

In some countries, the twin problems of academic fraud and corruption can be extreme. The enormous increase in outbound mobility from China in recent years, for example, has created a perfect breeding ground for academic fraud. Although the challenge is almost impossible to quantify and verify, estimates put forward by the now defunct China education consultancy agency Zinch China are alarming. Zinch in 2010 estimated that “90 percent of recommendation letters from Chinese students are fake, 70 percent of college application essays are not written by the students, and half of all high school transcripts are falsified.”1 [11] Some U.S. colleges have reported similar problems with large numbers of applicants from Nigeria applying with identical transcripts [12] and letters of recommendation.

The challenge can seem staggering, as can its varieties. For example:

Admissions fraud: A 2007 survey [13] of students from Eastern European countries found that 18 to 20 percent of “…students in Bulgaria, Croatia, and Serbia and 40 percent of … students in Moldova reported that they had used some illegal method to gain admission to their university.” In India, authorities in 2015 busted a crime ring in the state of Madhya Pradesh led by an assistant professor in cahoots with officials from the examinations board Vyapam that helped possibly more than 2,000 students get admitted into medical school by unlawful means. The outfit sold examination questions, facilitated “grade improvements,” and provided student impersonators to take admissions tests in exchange for more than USD $15,000 per student [14].

Bribery: Similar amounts may be paid for admission into universities in Russia, where bribery in education is endemic, and up to 50 percent [15] of students are said to experience corruption in their academic careers. In one high-profile example, a lecturer at the distinguished Moscow State University was in 2010 caught accepting a bribe of €35,000 [15] (USD $41,300) for admission. The nouveau rich in China, on the other hand, may in some instances pay Illegal “admission fees” of up to USD $130,000 [16] for acceptance at prestigious universities.

Bribes sometimes begin at the earliest stages of schooling. In Vietnam, for instance, 67 percent of Vietnamese surveyed by the corruption watchdog organization Transparency International found it normal that parents pay bribes to teachers or school administrators to ensure admission to desirable elementary schools. Typical bribes range from USD $300 to USD $8002 [17] – a large sum in a country where the GDP per capita was USD $2,186 in 2016 [18].

Similar problems exist in higher education: in Kenya, for instance, recent legislation required members of parliament to hold a university degree [19]. The law was eventually scrapped [20], but it sent panicked politicians rushing to obtain degrees. Some politicians simply submitted forged credentials [21]. In other cases, corrupt university officials graduated prominent, if often academically unqualified, students from abbreviated or non-existent study programs. When the scandal came out, a number of universities were in 2017 forced to revoke [22] illegitimate degrees awarded to elected politicians. A Kenyan government audit [23] charged universities with the suspect issuance of degree certificates and the award of degrees without appropriate coursework.

In neighboring Uganda, the government investigated Busoga University in 2016 for issuing more than 1,000 [24] “premium-tuition” degrees to South Sudanese students, many of them military officers flocking to Uganda for easy degrees to secure government positions back home. The university allegedly admitted students without adequate academic prerequisites and graduated them from “abbreviated” two-month degree programs. In 2017, Uganda arrested [25] 88 staff members at Makerere University for corruption in connection with the alteration of student grades and the issuance of fraudulent degrees. (Some 600 degrees awarded by the university had previously been revoked in 2014.)

Examinations fraud: News of leaked exam questions and other forms of test-related fraud are commonplace in many countries.

Essay Mills and Plagiarism: The ghostwriting of academic works is a thriving racket alongside other forms of academic fraud like dissertation plagiarism.

Garden variety plagiarism and the submission of term papers, theses, and dissertations written by ghostwriters – so-called contract cheating – have been on the rise [33] in recent years. The ghostwriting industry is thriving with writing assignments of all kinds readily commissionable [34] online. In the UK alone, more than 20,000 students [35] are said to have purchased writing assignment from essay mills in 2016 – a trend that forces growing numbers of educators to deploy anti-plagiarism software and use other detective methods when assessing academic work.

According to some estimates [36], there are currently more than 1,000 English-language essay mill sites on the web, taking in tens of millions [33] of dollars annually. The number of such “contract-written” assignments submitted by students worldwide is impossible to quantify.

Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that such contract cheating is becoming a growing problem [33]. One 2014 survey [37] of students from Saudi Arabia, for example, found that more than 20 percent of students had paid somebody else for completing writing assignments. The ghostwriting service UK essays [38] has claimed that it in 2016 “sold 16,000 assignments…, up from 10,000 five years earlier, written by a network of 3,500 researchers [39].” Most of the action takes place on the internet, but the problem is visible offline as well. Among the various markets of Vietnam’s capitol Hanoi, for instance, is a well-know “thesis market [40]” close to a major university.

In Russia, high-level plagiarism is relatively common among civil servants and politicians [41]. Critics describe “an epidemic of faked dissertations, cooked up through plagiarism and other unethical means and pumped out with the help of corrupt committees that rubber-stamp the bogus work [42].” A 2015 study [43] found that one in nine politicians in the lower house of the Russian parliament had a plagiarized or fake degree [43]. Researchers from the U.S. Brookings Institution claim [44] that even the dissertation of President Vladimir Putin was plagiarized [45], while other researchers suggest that as many as 20 to 30 percent [41] of all dissertations defended in Russia since 1991 were “purchased on the black market.”

Fabricated Research: A related problem is the fabrication of scientific journal papers, a phenomenon that tends to be prominent in countries where scholars receive monetary incentives to publish in journals. To boost their standing in international science, Chinese universities, for instance, award cash prizes [46] for articles, while promotions and research grants are based on publication output. This has motivated some dishonest scholars to submit articles based on cooked-up research and fake peer reviews. In 2017, Quartz reported [47] that more than 50 percent of all articles retracted by scientific journals for peer review concerns worldwide were submitted by Chinese authors.

Shadowy services now provide fake peer reviews on demand. China’s Wuhan University has estimated that the country’s “industry of plagiarism, invented research and fake journals … in 2009 was worth [USD $150 million], a fivefold increase on just two years earlier [48].” Pakistan has a similar academic incentive system and similar problems. Prominent Pakistani academic Pervez Hoodbhoy claims that academia in the country is currently controlled by a “professor mafia [49]“ running publication “factories” that produce research papers resembling “actual research so disguised that you don’t get caught [50].” More than 100 doctoral programs were recently suspended [51] by Pakistani authorities due to quality problems.

Forged degrees: Perhaps the crudest form of academic fraud is the counterfeiting or purchasing of downright forged degrees. Degree counterfeiting outfits come in various forms, from small storefront operations in New York City’s Chinatown to ready-to-order internet sites.

A photo of a degree shop in Manila, the capital of the Philippines [54]

Degree shop in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. (photo: Stefan Trines)

Corrupt Agents: There are an estimated 20,000 recruitment agencies [55] worldwide funneling students to countries like Australia, the U.K., and, in recent years, the U.S., where about 30 percent [56] of universities are said to be using agents for undergraduate admissions.

Reputable agents serve a critical role in student recruitment and provide valuable services to students [57]. But agents can be vulnerable to corruption, especially since they are gatekeepers whose revenues depend on student headcounts. Some 61 percent of U.S. admissions directors surveyed in 2013 believed that agents help “international applicants fabricate parts of their applications [58].”

In Australia, a country where universities pay agents an estimated USD $194 million annually [59], the government in 2011 blocked more than 200 [60] unscrupulous agents from India, China, and Australia from submitting visa applications because they submitted “fraudulent information in support of a student visa application.” In one instance, a university audit of a corrupt Indian recruiter found that 95 percent [61] of the applications submitted by the agent were fraudulent.

In China, a majority of prospective international students reportedly use agents. Some of these middlemen are, as the Australian government put it [60], “sole traders with not much more than a catchy title, a string of promises and a mobile phone,” eager to “clean up” essays, falsify records and submit fraudulent documents for economic gain.

Corruption in the Accreditation of Academic Institutions

Corruption in the accreditation and licensing of institutions may allow providers of sub-standard quality to operate. In post-Communist Georgia, for instance, a country that merely had 26 public universities at the beginning of the 20­00s, 209 licenses were given to new private providers in 2002 alone [62]. The licenses were granted in a nontransparent process [62] characterized by wide-spread bribery [63] and swept in a sizeable number of low-quality providers. Accreditation processes in other post-Communist countries like Romania were marred by similar forms of corruption and nepotism. Both countries have since adopted major reforms [64] in quality assurance mechanisms. (See also our article on Georgia in the current issue).

In another example, the extortion of bribes in exchange for accreditation by government authorities in Ukraine was as of the mid-2000s said to be the rule rather than the exception [65], irrespective of the quality of the institution. Universities also tried to ensure accreditation by employing “ghost professors” to meet lecturer quotas, forging inventories and bribing site inspectors [66]. In India, meanwhile, medical education has recently been tainted by rampant fraud [67] and the fact that many medical colleges are run by profit-seeking politicians.

According to Reuters [68], “recruiting companies routinely provide medical colleges with doctors to pose as full-time faculty members to pass government inspections.” The former president of the Medical Council of India, a body charged with overseeing medical education, was arrested in 2010 [68] for seeking bribes to recommend higher enrollment quotas at a private medical college.

But such problems are not limited to highly corrupt countries: in 2012, Chile’s Minister of Education was impeached [69] after the Director of the National Accreditation Commission was caught taking USD $600,000 in bribes [70] to ensure the accreditation of several universities.

Diploma Mills

On rare occasions, corruption in accreditation may even open a window for diploma mills to gain a mantle of legitimacy, at least on the internet, where diploma mills hunt for customers. In one example, a U.S.-based scam outfit which reportedly sold more than 10,000 fake degrees [71] and raked in USD $7 million in profits under the guise of names like “Saint Regis University” or “Robertstown University” bribed Liberian embassy officials to ensure accreditation [72] in Liberia (the U.S. secret service succeeded in shutting down the operation).

In Pakistan, an even bigger diploma mill operation run by a company named “Axact” operated without impunity for ten years, possibly taking in USD $140 million [73], until the New York Times exposed the scam. While Axact was not licensed as an academic institution and no government corruption has been alleged, experts consider the web of more than 370 diploma mills run by Axact the largest degree scam [74] in history. At least 2,615 known degree mills [75] operated worldwide in 2011 in addition to numerous accreditation mills that bestow fake accreditation upon such enterprises. (See also our article on diploma mills [76] in this month’s issue)

Recommendations for Safeguarding against Fraud

International credential evaluators work in a fast-changing environment characterized by immensely growing numbers of private institutions, distance education providers and transnational degree programs in various parts of the globe. The spread of academic fraud poses yet another challenge for universities, immigration authorities, and employers when assessing foreign credentials. How can institutions and others identify academic fraud that originates in unfamiliar foreign education systems? Depending on the issue in play, adopting certain safeguards offers at least some protection.

Strong Authentication and Verification Procedures

The most essential defenses against fraudulent documents are strong authentication and verification procedures. Forged credentials may on occasion be spotted upon inspection of the physical documents, but the growing sophistication of forgeries and inside jobs necessitate more robust verification procedures. In high-risk countries, it is prudent to verify documents with the issuing institutions or government bodies. While not always foolproof in all countries, governments that are signatory to the “Hague apostille convention [77]” officially certify academic documents with an apostille. Government-designated institutions like Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission [78] or China’s CDGC [79], to name but two examples, verify academic credentials. Online verification is also becoming increasingly common, usually using a unique pin code to check against a database, a method used by the WAEC [80]. The government of Malaysia, a country with a fake Ph.D. problem, just launched an online database [81] for doctoral degrees. Dissertations can often also be referenced in the online library catalog of universities.

Safeguards against Corrupt Recruitment Agents and International Admissions Fraud

When using recruitment agents, follow the guidelines put forward by institutions like the “American International Recruitment Council [82],” NACAC [83], the Australian government [84] or the British Council [85]. These include the careful vetting of agents to ensure that they have a proven track record in working with reputable institutions, are regarded as reliable by other universities, are appropriately licensed, maintain adequate staffing, and use ethical recruitment methods. Before setting up contracts, it is advisable to inspect agency offices on-site, and include clearly defined quality and admissions standards in written agreements. It is a good idea to provide continued oversight and training and to rely on a number of trusted agents, rather than a multitude of unproven agencies.

It may also be helpful to strengthen admissions procedures with face-to-face interviews (whether in person or via Skype) to assess applicants and detect potential fraud. The admissions platform Kira Talent [86], for instance, combines written assessments with video interviews.

Detecting and Preventing Plagiarism

In-depth review of written works can help reveal plagiarism, but is not always a practical solution, given the high volume of essays that universities have to assess. A common defense against plagiarism, therefore, is the use of anti-plagiarism software like “iThenticate [87],” which can detect at least the most blatant forms of plagiarism by comparing text with other publications on the internet. Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency also recommends [88] combating plagiarism and contract cheating by fostering a culture of academic integrity at institutions, including the training of staff, information campaigns for students, transparent policies and strict and consistent penalties for plagiarism. Depending on the situation, another solution may be to change assessment methods and augment student assessment with presentations and oral examinations, so that grading is not just based on a single high-stakes essay [89].

Track Developments in the Field to Guard against Diploma Mills and Illegitimate Providers

Assign dedicated staff to closely follow developments in foreign education systems and become familiar with the accreditation mechanisms in these countries. Diploma mills and fly-by-night operators can only go undetected if no proper research on the official accreditation status of these enterprises has been done. Case in point: In August 2017, the Zimbabwean government closed down no less than 223 [90] illegally operating colleges. It is important that staff is aware of such developments to ensure that credentials from these types of illegitimate institutions don’t make it past the assessment stage.

Beyond Academia: Broader Solutions

Safeguards against fraud are, of course, just a reactive measure against the symptoms of academic corruption without remedying its causes. Fighting endemic corruption at its roots will usually necessitate a governmental response well outside academia. Many experts agree that stamping out corruption in heavily afflicted countries requires political reforms to establish transparent regulatory systems, and tough enforcement to punish and deter unethical behavior. In higher education, this usually means that strong internal quality mechanisms must be combined with external quality controls and audits. Since both the direct state control of universities, on one hand, and the complete autonomy of institutions, on the other hand, facilitates corruption, a middle-ground approach is often recommended.3 [91] In this model, institutions have a reasonable amount of autonomy while being held accountable through robust external quality assurance mechanisms. Other recommendations put forward by UNESCO and CHEA in a recent “Advisory Statement for Effective international Practice on Combatting Corruption and Enhancing Integrity [10]” include:

Authoritarian governments in states like Singapore [92] and Rwanda [93] have achieved great success in combating corruption with zero tolerance policies, public education campaigns and stiff penalties for corruption.

While this approach is less likely to be replicated in more open societies, success stories in the fight against corruption often demonstrate the effectiveness of independent external monitoring. In Romania, for example, the introduction of an independent university ranking that includes academic integrity and financial irregularities as assessment criteria has caused universities to become more transparent and compete by adopting better governance practices.4 [94] Georgia, meanwhile, curbed endemic corruption in university admissions by taking admissions decisions away from universities and instituting a centralized admissions system monitored by external observers in which each exam is graded by no less than six different people.5 [95] (See also our article on Georgia in the current issue) Such measures are important steps towards the establishment of good governance and ethical norms needed to reduce corruption.

1. [96] Quoted from: Bergman, Justin: Forged Transcripts and Fake Essays: How Unscrupulous Agents Get Chinese Students into U.S. Schools [97], in Time, July 26, 2012.

2. [98] Stephanie Chow and Dao Thi Nga: Bribes for enrolment in desired schools in Vietnam, in: Transparency International, Global Corruption Report: Education [99], Oxford and New York, 2013, pp. 60 -67.

3. [100] See for example: Jamil Salmi and Robin Matross Helms: Governance instruments to combat corruption in higher education, in: Transparency International, op.cit., pp. 108-112.

4. [101] Romanian Academic Society: Ranking university governance in Romania: An exportable model?, in: Transparency International, op.cit., pp. 240-246.

5. [102] Mariam Gabedava: Reforming the university admission system in Georgia, in: Transparency International, op.cit., pp. 155-159.