7/22/2010 Fake degrees snare the unwary

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July 22, 2010

Khaleeg Times, Dubai

Despite almost a decade of work experience and a clutch of professional qualifications, Alan D’Souza found time and again that he was blocked from further employment because he did not have a degree.

It was then that he stumbled upon a website offering bachelors degrees which could be purchased and delivered within seven days.

“They said it would be a degree based on the amount of work experience I had,” said D’Souza. “They told me it would be recognised in the UAE.”

In exchange for $415 (Dh1,524), a salesman told him that he could have a certificate for a bachelors degree in IT, complete with a gold plated seal that “identifies it as a degree from a reputed and reliable institution”. The website in question belonged to Belford University, an organisation which is ‘under investigation’ in the US for offering fake degrees. “It sounded a bit suspicious so I turned it down,” said D’Souza. “I thought it was better to be safe than sorry.”

It was just as well. Had he attempted to gain employment with the degree, he could have faced up to 24 years in a UAE prison for fraud charges. On Monday, Khaleej Times reported how police had arrested 17 people in Fujairah over allegations of forging university degrees and using them to gain residency visas in the UAE.

One of the men was unable to write his own name, yet was holding a degree certificate in engineering.

The problem dates back to requirement of bachelors degree as a prerequisite to gain a work visa for certain categories of employment.

For D’Souza, who dropped out of school at Grade 10, yet completed his professional training and has many years of experience, the lack of a degree meant exclusion from a senior position.

“I used to pass many interviews, but the human resources department would always reject me on the basis of that,” he said.

The attraction of organisations like Belford University to people like D’Souza is that they claim to reward genuine knowledge gained through work experience, with a degree certificate.

According to an internet adviser at Belford University named Nigel Heistings, the organisation has 32,389 ‘alumni’ in the Middle East.  “We will evaluate you on the basis of your work and life experience,” he said.

“We will convert your working hours into credits, and if we see that you have the required credit, we will award you the degree.”

However, when a reporter for Khaleej Times posed as an 18-year-old with little work experience except through summer jobs, the organisation was still willing to issue a degree.  Last year, this newspaper reported how Belford University and another suspected degree mill, Ashwood University, claimed to have a printing facility in Dubai.

“It’s cost-effective,” said a Belford University student adviser named Ken Rogers. “Documents being mailed out in Asia and Middle East are being printed in Dubai. This is because it costs us $69 to ship the documents from here to UAE and over there it cost us only $20.”

However on Monday, Heistings denied that there was an office in Dubai. He added that Rogers had been fired, but declined to say whether it was over his admission last year to Khaleej Times.

“I am afraid I can’t disclose that,” he said. “I love my work.”

The organisation does not have accreditation from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), the US government education watchdog.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board lists Belford University among ‘institutions whose degrees are illegal to use in Texas’.

According to its website, the Board has listed Belford University as ‘under investigation’ and that ‘diplomas are mailed from the UAE’.

Even so, Heistings claimed that Belford University was able to get its degrees attested by the UAE Embassy in Washington, a crucial first step in gaining residency in the UAE. A spokesman for the Embassy was not available for comment.  Part of the confusion comes from the non-governmental organisations which accredit degree mills.

These organisations, which sell accreditation to degree mills, are not recognised by the US Department of Education and are often labelled as ‘accreditation mills’.  “Accreditation mills, often established by diploma mills themselves, attempt to convince prospective students that these operations have received affirmations of academic quality,” said Tim Willard, spokesman for CHEA. Jason Morris, President of US-based EmployeeScreenIQ, said that the growing number of accreditation mills has made the task of screening difficult for officials and employers.

“Unfortunately, fake accreditation bodies are surfacing each and every month,” he said. “As employment screening firms are getting smarter, so are the criminals.”

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