Dozens of bogus websites have been closed down in a bid to stamp out the sale of fake degrees, reports the BBC.
The fraudulent websites already taken down, which so far number more than forty, include those that have been selling authentic-looking degree certificates from established British universities, while others are dishonestly dealing in unaccredited or non-existent distance learning courses.
Higher Education Degree Datacheck (Hedd), the agency charged with seeking out the illegal operations, has identified 220 websites to date. Its investigations follow a BBC South East investigation which found fake University of Kent degree certificates on sale online in China for £500.
Jayne Rowley, the higher education services director at Prospects, which runs Hedd, said last September was its busiest month so far, with the closure of four bogus university sites and three websites selling fake degree certificates from a number of UK universities.
“One of the institutions we shut down in September was Stafford University. Now, of course there is an entirely genuine Staffordshire University, so they are piggy-backing on a name,” she told the BBC.
“There are some sites where they’ve actually taken the name of a real university – Surrey for example.
“There was a bogus provider shut down by us a couple of months ago calling itself Surrey University, and we’ve had ‘Wolverhamton university’ without the ‘p’ in the middle.”, while degrees from the University of Manchester were sold on the auction website eBay.”
Others to have used almost identical names to blue chip British universities, are Cambridgeshire University and Manchester Open University.
The government announced a crackdown on bogus providers in June 2015, with the aim of prosecuting and closing down fraudulent websites. The Department for Education has been funding the work.
Potentially illegal UK activity is referred to trading standards or the police. Overseas fraud activities, some of which are sophisticated, multi-million pound businesses, are referred by Hedd to the relevant authorities in those countries.
Ms Rowley told the Daily Telegraph:
“People are being conned out of thousands, thinking they are actually studying.”
She is warning people that in sharing photos of their certificates on social media, they are creating a ‘Twitter selfie problem’ by inadvertently giving fraudsters a helping hand.
“If someone wants to copy the certificate, they will be able to tell what colour the certificate is, what it looks like, the Vice Chancellor’s signature and so on.”
“In the summer we spent a lot of time contacting universities to tell students not to pose with their certificates and then put the pictures on social media,” she told the Telegraph.
The fake degree ‘industry’ could become more of a problem because the government is planning to open up the sector to a new generation of degree-awarding bodies. Ms Rowley fears that such a move would lead to a significant increase in the number of universities, so giving bogus activities a greater chance of operating under the radar.
The rise in online distance learning could also make fraudulent operations easier to get away with while the rise in tuition fees could mean that growing numbers of students would be priced out of authentic university education and instead turn to fake and cut-price awarding bodies.
Employers could do more to block these dishonest practices by making sure they check potential employees’ qualifications with the awarding bodies and by asking to see relevant certificates. Currently, only about 20 per cent of employers contact the awarding bodies and a third rely on CVs only.
A spokesman for the Department for Education told the BBC:
“Degree fraud cheats both genuine learners and employers so we’ve taken decisive action to crack down on those seeking to profit from it.”