Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Bad degrees drives out good degrees?

Gresham's 'law' states that bad money drives out good money. The intuition behind this law is that as more and more fake currency is circulated in the economy, more and more people will keep their genuine currency at home and transact using only fake money and we'll end up having an economy that has only fake money in circulation. Will the same thing happen with forged academic qualifications?

There was a spate of reports, here, here and here, in the Star last Sunday (Nov. 19, 2006) highlighting the issue of fake academic qualifications, ranging from SPM certificates all the way to full blown degrees.

Forging different academic qualifications have their different implications and effects. For example, forging an SPM or STPM certificate to gain entry into a private college would not have the same negative effects on a college as the forging of a fullblown degree from that same college (or their overseas partners.

A student who has bad SPM or STPM grades (they have to be pretty bad not to be able to gain entry into private colleges given that, as far as I know, most of the entry requirements are not very high)(reminder to self: This should be the subject of another post) and who fake their results are not likely to get very far in their degree programs. If the quality control within a college or university is stringent enough, then it is likely that some of these students would not pass their degree (or maybe obtain only a marginal pass). If theses students are faking their results to gain entry into a program with higher entry requirements, then it is likely that they will struggle through these programs to their own detriment.

One of the ways in which such forgery might be significant is that they might be used to obtain scholarships from the college in question or other organisations which offer local scholarships (such as the Star education fund, for example) and in doing so, deny other genuinely qualified applicants from receiving these scholarships.

The other question relating to using forged SPM or STPM certificates to gain entry into private colleges is the issue of monitoring.

In one of the Star reports,

“In general, private institutions of higher learning do not usually check their potential students’ examination certificates with MES before accepting them,” said the sources (from the Malaysian Examinations Syndicate)

It doesn't seem surprising to me that private college administrators are not unduly worried about the authenticity of SPM or STPM documents, especially at the undergraduate level. After all, it is in the interest of these colleges to accept as many students as possible given that each student represents a source of revenue.

One college administrator was quoted as saying that his "would always ask for original copies of students’ results when they enrolled" which I find a little bit incredulous. I'm sure no student would send the original copy of their SPM or STPM certificate to the private colleges to which they are applying to and I'm sure that no private college asks for the actual original certificate for every application. As far as I know, the common practice is to have a commissioner of oath authenticate a photocopy of the certificate. If a good forged copy of a certificate is shown to a commissioner of oaths, one could easily question the reliability of this method of authentication.

Only very badly forged documents would be detected by university administrators and over time, as I'm sure we can imagine, the quality of these forged copies will only improve.

I don't see any cost effective way of monitoring and keeping this problem in check. In my opinion, I don't think that this problem is that widespread, at least for now, given that entry requirements into private colleges are not very stringent. It would be possible for the Malaysian Examinations Syndicate (MES) to set up an online database for SPM and STPM results which private colleges could subscribe to and check the authenticity of the results. But this would raise other questions especially in regards to privacy issues. The other alternative would be for a government body (either under the Ministry of Higher Education or Consumer Affairs) to crack down on the outfits who are offering these kinds of services. But given that we've not managed to eliminate pirated DVD and VCD shops, I'm not sure if we'll be able to do the same for these outfits.

The more serious issue is in the forging of full blown degree certificates. This is an area in which the 'bad' i.e. forged degrees can really drive down the quality and reputation of a 'good' degree.

I see two possible strategies for people who want to take this academic 'shortcut'. One would be to forge a degree from a relatively unknown university in a Western country e.g. Marshall University from Huntingdon, West Virginia, USA. Not many potential employers would have heard of this university and are less likely to be able to tell if the degree certificate is genuine or not. In addition, you're not likely to get other people asking you whether you know so-and-so from the same college from the same year. The downside is that the lack of name recognition might not get you an interview with a potential employer (though that can be taken care off possibly by faking a summa cum laude / first class honors degree).

The second strategy is to forge a degree from a university that is relatively well known in Malaysia and where many Malaysian students have to gone and are currently attending. Some examples include Sheffield and Nottingham in the UK and Monash or Curtin in Australia. This way, you can 'pretend' to be one of the masses of Malaysian students in these universities and also get the benefit of name recognition from a potential employer.

The second strategy has a much greater potential to create damage. Imagine if over a period of time, the number of forged degrees from Sheffield in Malaysia were to steadily increase and then it reaches a tipping point where this 'scam' is revealed. It would not only call into question the authenticity of the degrees of current Sheffield students (or those who are graduating when the 'scam' is revealed) but also affect past Sheffield students.

It is in this area where the private colleges in Malaysia and their partners overseas have the incentive to crack down before the problem explodes in their faces. Again, we have no idea how widespread this problem is but if I were the private colleges or their overseas partners, I would act swiftly on this matter before it gets out of hand.

There's certainly an argument here for the private colleges (especially the big ones) to band together to create some sort of consortium / organization to lobby for such forgeries to be stopped and / or for the legal penalties for such forgeries to be increased significantly.

There's another forgery strategy which one can employ but which I don't think is very clever. One can try to forge a degree from a very well known university like Harvard or Cambridge or Oxford and then try to reap the full benefits of such a forgery. But it would take a great actor of some intellectual ability to effectively pull this off given that the level of scrutiny of graduates from these universities is much higher and the network much smaller. If Tony didn't really attend Oxford or if I didn't really do my Masters in Cambridge, we'd be revealed as frauds relatively quickly.

Bad degrees don't drive out good degrees in the same way that bad money drives out good money. Firstly, degrees are not a homogenous commodity unlike money. Even if a degree from one particular university is 'degraded', there are still other degrees out there. Secondly, there are ways to authenticate degrees without having to recall the entire batch of degrees from a particular university, so remedial effects are less costly. But this doesn't mean that university administrators shouldn't be worried about this problem.


Tony P said...

Haha... I was just about to blog on the same thing! :) Saved me the effort then ;)

FYI, I was conned some 6 years ago by a "Francis" who claimed to have graduated from Harvard Business School, whose resume was forwarded by a headhunter. I hired him without first reviewing his certs, paid well and discovered after about six months, he was a total fraud. HBS confirmed no such alumnus using whichever permutations to his name. Went ahead to sue him for fraud, which he agreed to "settle" before trial commenced. But it was a good lesson for me, knowing the extent to which people were willing to go to earn a little extra bucks.

I'm definitely a lot more careful today :)

Anonymous said...


how about PhD frauds.. these are worse academic conmen .. read about one from China in the Star the other day.. haven't read about PhD conladies tho

Anonymous said...

Actually, it wouldn't be very hard to forge a Cambridge degree - they look like a 12-yer-old designed them using MS Word!

youngyew said...

I think the idea of online result verification with MES is really good, and it needs not raise concerns of privacy.

For an example, on each examination result slip, MES can attach a result-specific serial number which is generated by an algorithm according to the student's name and his / her results.

For the purpose of verification, the college administrator can then log on to the MES, provide the name and the serial number, and there should be an algorithm to decrypt the serial number and give the results. If the results is a fake, and provided that the serial-generating algorithm is not cracked easily, the fake certificates would have no chance of making it through.

In such a system, there isn't a need to store everyone's information in the database; instead, the verification system only has to do the decryption according to the serial number, which of course is safe unless you tell everyone in your blog.

p/s: Actually there are many other possible ways too.. for example they can have an offline database (online database is never a good idea without a solid defence from hackers). Then for the purpose of verification, students can apply for a seven-day authorisation code which is given to the college for the purpose of telephone verification. The list can go on.

clk said...

I think its high time database such as SPM, STPM or even college degrees can be made available with certain rules/regulations for example, the candidate/alumnus can authorise the other party to check/verify his/her degree online with a certain password valid for a period of time. This would enable them to check their cert/degree online.

I'm not sure abt other colleges but The OU in UK allows me to log in online anytime to enable me to print my results. I can even show them to third parties if I give them my user id/password.

I recalled that as part of the award, I was required to sign papers to state that my results/degree will be made public once I accepted it. Not sure abt other schools.

cockle hunter said...

The day will come when vegetable sellers, bus drivers, rubbish collector and almost everyone will have strings of degrees behind their name.

As it is I heard graduates from our premier universities getting jobs as clerks and even as cyber cafe worker.

No point sending your children to do university studies and having loans up to your neck to settle with no jobs guaranteed. Rather use the money to buy car parking lots ak KL golden triangle and collect parking fees

Anonymous said...

Somehow if you wonder why colleges do not refer to the MES ie because it doesn't want to take the risk of losing a student.

A single student can bring in as much as RM20k of revenue to the colleges. Let's not only talk about Malaysian student. What about students from Africa, Asia Minor, the Middle East and other developing or underdevloped countries? As far as I know our colleges here do not have a system to check the authenticity of the certificate issued by institutions of learning from other countries.

I mean let's put it this way. If you lose your certificate issued from a local University, you would just have to pay a bit of money to a replication of the same certificate. Loose the original and then forged them with another name and then get a replacement copy. Easy!

With modern day media technology, one can do a lot of things! It is very easy!

Anonymous said...

I am very surprised that even intelligent oxford graduate like TP can be conned by joker with fraud degree..

Oxford university must be not as good as before ;))

Anonymous said...

After reading about another Oxford fellow who is a son-in-law of someone, I am no longer impressed with Oxford.

Sorry, I couldn't help it :)

But I am impressed with TP.

Anonymous said...

...he he, i can see TP grinning from ear to ear..with the above compliments

I took oxford english course in primary school, and use cambridge log book in secondary school

Anonymous said...

i hear of stories that some private colleges are so aggressive that if the interested student can show them his admission offer letter from another highly-regarded competitor college, a similar offer for him can be churned out for the same course on the spot ..supporting documents to prove credentials ? .. show them another day another trip lah if forget to bring.. this is marketing strategy at its best ..better still if the first offer is from Oxford or Cambridge :)