Answer that, would you? Alarm sounds for the exam ringers

European conference warned of the growing threat posed by bogus students. Jack Grove reports

September 20, 2012

Student "ringers" are being paid tens of thousands of pounds to sit examinations for university applicants as academic fraud becomes big business, industry experts have warned an international conference.

According to Daniel Guhr, managing director of the Illuminate Consulting Group, students keen to gain a place at top Western universities were asking "professional impersonators" to sit their exams - mainly English language tests.

With more than 1.7 million International English Language Testing System (IELTS) papers taken each year, professional fraudsters in Asia were finding ways to exploit the programme, Dr Guhr said.

He told the European Association for International Education's (EAIE) annual conference, held in Dublin on 11-14 September, that students were paying around $2,000 (£1,230) for IELTS stand-ins.

"You also have ringers...who will do all the tests [at university]. These students find it very convenient to outsource the academic side of their studies," he said. "The highest amount paid so far was $48,000 for an impersonator to take a medical school exam."

Even prestigious universities in the US and the UK have fallen foul of this kind of academic fraud, he said.

"You have commercial companies [that] provide virtual identities similar to those used by law enforcement agencies for witness protection programmes," Dr Guhr said.

Blacklist beckons

Those universities that failed to kick out students suspected of fraud risked their reputations, as employers tended to pick up which colleges were supplying incompetent graduates, he said.

"Students might get away with fraud and plagiarism at your institution, but they eventually will not as employers will know. It will then start to affect your institution," he added.

"Employers have started to blacklist certain programmes because [graduates] are not good enough. We're a small company but we have recruited from colleges whose graduates were not good enough. This goes all the way up to the Ivy League."

One job application to Illuminate from an Ivy League alumnus with a master's degree from a leading London university contained 32 mistakes and exaggerations plus "non-existent grammar", he said. This highlighted "what is coming employers' way".

Gudrun Paulsdottir, an international strategist at Malardalen University in Sweden and the EAIE's outgoing president, said efforts to clamp down on poor performance often made tutors uneasy.

"[Our] teachers were extremely uncomfortable with this...but we do not want students out there with our degrees who cannot write or spell. That will come back and bite us - we do not want to be blacklisted," she said.

She added that universities should interview incoming foreign students using Skype to check their English and recommended more collaboration between institutions to combat fraud.

"But it is often very embarrassing to talk about it and say 'we screwed up'. Universities would rather not mention it," said Dr Guhr. "People will also say: 'Of course fraud happens, but not at my institution.' However, it's a much bigger issue and it's happening at a global level.

"Fraud tends to find the weakest link - it is now turning its attention to the US and Canada."

Academic fraud perpetrated by so-called "degree mills", which offer certificates for several hundred dollars in exchange for little or no study, were also discussed at the conference.

Institutions such as Knightsbridge University, which is based in a small town in Northern Denmark, supplied PhDs to students, many of them based in South Africa, the conference heard.

Allen Ezell, a former FBI agent who now advises higher education bodies on fraud, called for tougher action to tackle a "billion-dollar industry". However, without US federal laws targeting degree and accreditation mills (unregulated, unrecognised awarders of degrees), the penalties available to authorities were "useless and worthless", he warned.

"If you don't carry a badge or a gun and you can't lock someone up, you cannot do much," said Mr Ezell.

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