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Institutions, in many cases foreign, that offer instant academic qualifications ‘at the touch of a button’ are on the increase and these ‘qualifications’ have little or no practical value in the marketplace. Experts within the credentials verification market say consumers should treat these so-called ‘degree or qualification mills’ with the utmost caution.
Ina van der Merwe, CEO, Managed Integrity Evaluation (Pty) Ltd. (MIE), says the online medium lends itself to learning because it allows for immediate, automatic and interactive access to information. However, these advantages are also being manipulated by operators that follow a ‘production line’ scenario for the development and issuing of what appear to be bone-fide qualifications.
These so-called degree or qualification mills award these qualifications based on very little or no meaningful work completed or curriculum followed.
According to Van der Merwe it is possible to acquire an authentic-looking qualification almost instantaneously, and the Internet has made it increasingly difficult to differentiate between legitimate and non-legitimate operators.
“Degree mills have been in operation for decades and they continue to flourish in leaps and bounds, fuelled primarily by the Internet. Yes, you can get an authentic looking academic degree – all you need is a few thousand Rand and a few days while you wait for your degree to be printed and shipped to you. The question is, how do you tell the difference between an MBA from Harvard University and an MBA from the University of Harvard?” Van der Merwe explains.
As part of its service portfolio, MIE offers a full credentials check and background screening that covers academic qualifications. The company has a large database of institutes that have been identified as qualification mills.
According to van der Merwe the issue of legitimacy and integrity of academic qualifications continues to receive media attention because of the extent to which it affects employers and employees.
“The lives of people can be adversely affected. It is for this reason that we continue to drive home the message of what constitutes a professional, credible and legitimate operation and what does not,” Van der Merwe continues.
To this end the company lists a number of general characteristics that may help the consumer identify degree mills. This list includes:
• Lack of accreditation by nationally recognized accreditation bodies. Some degree mills even claim accreditation from accreditation mills.
• Institute names that are similar to those of legitimate and often prestigious schools. This is used to deceive unassuming prospective employers.
• Extremely low coursework requirements in comparison to accredited institutions, with credentials awarded following very little to no studying.
• Academic legitimacy based on claims of affiliation with respected organizations that are not involved in academic accreditation.
• ‘Lecturers’ who themselves have qualifications from the degree mill or have legitimate degrees that are not related to their area of lectureship.
• Marketing via unsolicited e-mail or spam as well as grammatical errors in marketing material
• Academic credit that is based on ‘work or life experience’.
Van der Merwe also points out that the impact and influence of degree mills is such that unqualified and/or people who acquire and use fraudulent documents can and often do secure positions ahead of those who have worked hard to acquire a legitimate qualification.
“An honest learner can actually miss out on employment opportunities. He or she may have taken out study loans and have, despite many challenges, worked over years to obtain a genuine, recognised qualification. The reality is because of degree mills or similar institutions, these people can be overlooked by someone who perhaps holds a paper-based qualification,” she says.
“Our hope is that the more people learn and understand about degree mills, the better equipped they will be to avoid falling victim to unscrupulous service providers and invest resources in what are essentially meaningless qualifications,” Van der Merwe concludes.