Meg Ryan is not the only one who can fake it. In 2010 some 160 politicians in Pakistan’s parliament were challenged by the authorities over the validity of their degrees. But as Nawab Aslam Raisani, then the chief minister of Balochistan, explained, “A degree is a degree! Whether fake or genuine, it’s a degree. It makes no difference.” It’s a point of view. Some had simply awarded themselves a degree. Others bought one. You can get them cheaply enough, although not as cheaply as a University of Oxford Master of Arts, which will set you back all of £10 if you already have an Oxford BA. According to research carried out in 2000 by the Quality Assurance Agency, nearly two-thirds of employers were unaware that these particular degrees require no work and are bought off the shelf. Oxford’s motto is “The Lord is My Light”. Presumably he looks away when MAs are handed out.
Faking it has become a way of life, a global business. According to The Economist, by 2012 there were more than 100 fake Chinese universities offering diplomas for sale. It quotes a Shanghai Jiao Tong academic who laments: “A diploma is worth actual money, whereas an education is not”.
Faking has become a way of life, a global business. A Shanghai Jiao Tong academic laments: ‘A diploma is worth actual money, whereas an education is not’
But if that seems scary, consider this - and fasten your seat belt. Last year, Pakistan International Airlines fired six pilots for faking qualifications. Another 500 staff were found to have false credentials. India, meanwhile, has a painful problem with fraudulent dentists. And in the UK, just over a decade ago it was revealed that a teaching hospital in London - the geographically displaced Sussex General Hospital - had worked with the Metropolitan Collegiate Institute to qualify doctors for nearly two decades. The problem was that neither organisation existed, except as P.O. boxes. The BBC reported on a “graduate” who set up a practice in Florida. There he told a woman she was dying of cancer when she had a skin condition as a result of the glue she used as a manicurist. Fined for practising medicine without a licence, he moved to the Dominican Republic. Trust me, you don’t want to know what happened next. Last year the British Medical Journal published a letter from a Greek obstetrician claiming that tens of thousands of medical doctors in Europe had fake degrees.
The world leader in fraudulent qualifications, however, is the US. The Diploma Company, indeed, takes pride in its national identity, replying to the rhetorical question “How can I trust Diploma Company?” with the assurance that “unlike some foreign fake diploma companies that only accept money orders and cash”, it takes “all major credit cards”. The Diploma Centre, meanwhile, offers what it endearingly calls “Custom Made 100% Authentic Fake Diploma and Fake Degree” certificates, while Phonydiploma.com promises “fast, friendly, honest service”. “Ask for Steve,” it adds, while promising that nothing on the certificate (delivered in a plain box with no indication of the “product”) indicates that it is fraudulent. They do have integrity, however, in refusing to sell fake diplomas to do with medicine or aviation.
Another site goes so far as to warn against fake medical degrees while offering certificates “based on your life experience” - a life experience, presumably, of having once had piles. It takes a whole seven days (David Willetts look away now) to earn a “PhD Degree” based on life experience, awarded by Rochville University, via AffordableDegrees.com. That is certainly an accurate descriptor since costs start at just $699 (£450) for a BA. One of its MBA alumni is, famously, a dog. Another Rochville “graduate” was Gene Morrison, who posed as a forensic expert in the UK, with fake degrees in forensic science and criminology, and who was jailed in 2007 on deception charges.
Of course, fraud takes place in legitimate universities. Occasionally scientists have put their thumb on the scales and psychologists have been found making up data. Last November, a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that of 2,047 PubMed-indexed biomedical papers that were retracted, 43.4 per cent were for fraud or suspected fraud, pointing to a ten-fold increase since 1975. Yoshitaka Fujii, interestingly an expert in vomiting, was found to have fabricated at least 172 out of 212 published studies, twice as many as Joachim Boldt, a German anaesthesiologist, until then the reigning champion with 89 retractions, according to a 2012 report in ScienceInsider. An open-access journal, meanwhile, accepted a paper after what it claimed had been a peer review. The deliberately nonsensical article had been written by a computer.
Obvious frauds are one thing but we have surely long since adjusted ourselves to CVs that, as Emily Dickinson put it, tell the truth but tell it slant. Where once a personal statement on a Universities and Colleges Admissions Service form would speak of stacking shelves, now there is pressure for would-be students to lay claim to work experience fixing the Libor rate. Candidates for jobs have abandoned British reticence for a fairground barker approach. Where once they might have admitted to publishing a thin volume and having a passing interest in teaching, if that was absolutely a condition of the post, now they are liable to lay claim to being widely acknowledged as the world expert on the use of the dipthong in early middle German and being an outstanding teacher as evidenced by a (redacted) student feedback form attached.
The Society for Human Resource Management suggests that more than 50 per cent of job applicants lie on their CVs. So next time you fly, visit a doctor or dentist or admire the productivity of a vomiting expert, pause a moment. But if you want a degree, we are offering one for £9,000 a year. Ask for Steve.