Fraud represents a grave danger in any society where it takes hold, let alone when it pertains to academic credentials. The falsification of Master’s and PhD degrees is particularly destructive as, at this level, academics are supposed to represent the elite and are entrusted with leading society toward development, progress and growth in all walks of life.
We are confronted with a crime that destroys the present and the future, undermining all meanings of competency, diligence, merit and fair competition. This comes at a time when the leadership in the region, with the UAE leadership at its forefront, relies on education, sound academic research and qualified citizens to spearhead the development process in the post-oil era.
His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, has stressed the importance of being prepared for this era by investing in education.
Recently, dozens of cases of counterfeit or faked academic degrees, covering a wide range of specialisations, have been discovered in some Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Some of the faked degrees belonged to officials, directors and others in positions of authority. This confirms that we are facing a growing phenomenon, and it calls for a serious stand from the authorities concerned before it turns into a malicious disease that plagues GCC states.
It is a destructive practice that undermines development and renders any debate about science and its role in the renaissance of our countries meaningless. Crucially, this phenomenon is neither new nor surprising, but it has been on the rise in recent years, in full view of numerous regulatory bodies concerned that have failed to stop or minimise it.
It is not possible, in such a small space, to cover all of the cases of forgery that have recently been detected in GCC countries, as they are numerous and ongoing. Further, the sensitivity of the issue makes it difficult to reveal all of the relevant figures and dimensions in some countries. However, I will highlight examples that show the magnitude and implications of the catastrophe, and how it threatens not only the future of development, but the entire concept of progress in some societies.
In 2018, the Dubai Criminal Court found a female foreign national guilty of practising medicine using a forged medical degree, where she even went so far as to promote herself as a celebrity doctor. In Kuwait, in 2018, the public was shocked to learn of a large number of fake degree holders, among them some senior officials and employees. It also emerged that some staff at the Ministry of Higher Education were involved in facilitating the forgeries. The same occurred in Bahrain last year when the media reported large numbers of people implicated in holding falsified degrees from fake universities.
In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the press has reported, on several occasions in recent years, cases of forged medical and engineering degrees. In 2014, the Saudi council of Engineers discovered more than 30,000 fake engineering certificates. The most striking aspect of this educational fraud is that it is not limited to the humanities and social science disciplines.
It extends to medical and engineering specialisations where forgery should be more difficult because the practical side of study is more significant, with more attention paid to meeting the highest professional and ethical standards. This is particularly concerning as these disciplines are directly connected to people’s lives and safety.
Inadequate certification procedures have prompted counterfeiters to further exploit loopholes and to do the unthinkable. Imagine with me, dear reader, how someone can practice medicine, diagnose ailments, prescribe drugs and even perform surgery, tampering with people’s lives without certificates or skills. This person is practising a sensitive and specialised profession with a fake document. The same applies to the engineer who supervises the design and construction of buildings without having studied engineering.
The results would undoubtedly be catastrophic, not just at economic and development levels, but also at the level of casualties and cost to human life. Despite the large number of fake degrees that have recently been detected in GCC countries, this, unfortunately, represents only the tip of the iceberg. The majority of illegitimate degrees are still undetected and that is a source of danger. As a long-standing issue, perpetuated in absolute secrecy, these forgeries are committed by entities specialised in the practice. They possess rich expertise in concealing their crimes, while the relevant regulatory authorities are unaware or incapable of fixing the loopholes that counterfeiters exploit.
A community where the phenomenon of fake academic degrees prevails is a community in danger... This threat is immense, for the present as well as the future.
Forgery of degrees is not an ordinary crime, rather a complex one. Therefore, it is difficult to identify and fully comprehend, and this requires significant effort and cooperation between local and external authorities.
There are different types of academic fraud. Direct forgery of academic degrees sees counterfeit or inauthentic certificates obtained, which were not issued by the concerned educational institution. Another variant of the crime sees offenders obtain an authentic certificate, in terms of procedures and stamps, but the named degree holder exerts no effort and pays others to conduct the research. This is known as the ‘purchase of academic research’ and it happens, unfortunately, under the guise of apparent validity, as they appear from the outside to come from legitimate institutions.
Difficult to detect
The purchase of academic research has become widespread in some countries, and is carried out by agencies, brokers and mediators, some of whom are well-known, declaring themselves publicly, without fear. Another form of academic fraud is plagiarising, which is stealing, passing off and falsely claiming the research papers of others as the counterfeiter’s own. With the digital information revolution, these cases have become much more difficult to detect, even with the use of specially designed software. Buying a certificate from a fake university, i.e. earning degrees without real study, is another type of academic fraud.
I have read some media reports that detail terrible facts about this issue, where advertisements offer to ‘deliver’ certificates to homes or promise a Master’s or Ph D degree within a few weeks or months. These cases, among others, defame education and academic degrees to the extent that many in society have started to devalue certificates and their holders’ achievements.
Meanwhile, no action is being taken by regulators against these advertisers. Diligent people, who worked hard for years to earn a degree to help themselves and serve their nation, pay for the acts of counterfeiters and criminals, who seek to take what is not theirs by fraudulently earning a degree without any effort or entitlement. Worse still, this phenomenon undermines concepts of justice, equality and competence. Those who earn fake certificates use them to request promotions, with some successfully attaining senior positions, as has often found to be the case.
Pain and anguish
This reflects a serious moral crisis, as forgery marks a decline in values and morals in the communities where it takes place. More strikingly, the recurrence and prevalence of the phenomenon has seen academic fraud become almost common practice through repetition and imitation, which poses a very real threat. Furthermore, certificate counterfeiting is a religious issue, as it is a sin that violates the teachings of Islam, which urge fairness, honesty and avoiding fraudulence and cheating. Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) prohibited this conduct saying in Sahih Muslim: “He who takes up arms against us is none of us; and he who cheats us is none of us.”
Pain and anguish are felt every time a fake certificate is found, considering the serious implications, especially for a person like me who belongs to a generation that sees hard work, effort and struggle as the only way to progression and education. There is hope that these crimes will be scrutinised and become the focus of the media in our countries, to elevate this important issue within public opinion and see it examined before the courts. This serious issue should be properly addressed, and the relevant institutions placed on alert to establish countermeasures and punish offenders. Above all, counterfeiters should be exposed and held accountable for the crimes they have committed against their nations, communities, and against themselves.
The question now is: What is the solution? How can we prevent this phenomenon and bridge the gaps in existing verification mechanisms for academic degrees?
As mentioned earlier, this is no easy task. It is a complex and overlapping issue. Nevertheless, combating this phenomenon is not impossible, and there are options. Here, I give some suggestions, which could contribute to countering the issue, although it is ultimately the responsibility of competent authorities in each country. Recommendations include:
— Leveraging the role of regulatory bodies responsible for the verification of academic degrees. These bodies exist, but their roles need to be reinforced
— Enacting legislation that provides stricter punishment of forgery as a harmful crime, expediting court proceedings without impunity
— Reviewing Master’s and PhD theses by specialised committees before they are endorsed by relevant bodies. These committees should verify the authenticity and academic veracity of research. They should also discuss the content of theses with fellow researchers to ensure they have not been bought or plagiarised. A lecture or presentation could also be requested before endorsing the degree
— Tracking and prosecuting agencies or individuals offering to prepare academic research papers, without leniency. In the UAE, advertisements are published in newspapers and distributed to homes, naming offices that will prepare research papers for students, at a variety of educational levels. Oddly enough, there are no attempts to tackle these individuals or their sponsors
— Collaborating with academic and professional certificate verification firms. These firms have techniques, search and tracking networks, as well as wide experience in detecting forgery. This is particularly important as counterfeiters continuously upgrade their methods to escape detection.
— Lastly, if we want to look more thoroughly at the matter, we need to change the prevailing view on academic degrees in our Gulf and Arab countries. Certificates should not be a magic route to employment or social advancement. Experience and competency must be the main and first standard of progress and promotion.
The aim of achieving a promotion or a leadership position can cause weak people to fake qualifications, particularly Master’s and PhD certificates, and unfortunately, this is what usually happens. Because of this, we find employees and officials who hold critical positions, and are ‘experts’ in various fields, despite having no knowledge or experience at all. They have not exerted any effort in earning the certificates that allowed them to get their jobs, positions or professional titles.
A community where the phenomenon of fake academic degrees prevails is a community in danger. This article is a wake-up call, that we must face this abhorrent phenomenon. Hopefully, others will join me in the campaign against this epidemic, whether on social media platforms, newspapers, television, or other media channels. This threat is immense, for the present as well as the future.
— Dr Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi is a UAE author and director-general of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research.