The number of fraudsters, forgers and cheats is booming in an increasingly lucrative global higher education market, according to a report that draws together evidence on the problem from around the world.
Unprincipled academics, university administrators and students are implicated in scams that include fake visas and entry qualifications, dubious admissions practices, bogus institutions, plagiarism, dishonest grading and counterfeit qualifications.
The report, from the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, has found that almost every country with a university system has in the past few years recorded growing fraud cases across the higher education "supply chain".
The phenomenon has mushroomed as higher education has become more international and commercial. And yet the report says that fraud in higher education is poorly understood.
There is little international co-operation between governments and quality assurance agencies to check fraud, even though it threatens the reputations of legitimate institutions, higher education systems, employment practices and even national security.
The report says: "The rapid growth, diversity and often 'virtual' nature of higher education has made effective regulation and quality control increasingly difficult, especially in countries where quality assurance and other regulatory frameworks are relatively underdeveloped, and in situations where provision crosses borders and is shared between providers."
The report identifies plagiarism as just one part of a much wider problem. It follows news that thousands of students in the UK were found guilty last year of plagiarising coursework and almost 100 were permanently excluded. Figures gained using the Freedom of Information Act show that almost half the UK's universities reported cases of plagiarism in 2003-04 - a total of 6,672. Westminster University had the most instances - 707 of its students were found to have copied original work without declaring it.
The Observatory report also cites a study by Sweden's National Agency for Higher Education that concludes that the number of fake universities worldwide rose from about 200 in 2000 to more than 800 last year.
In the UK, some institutions with "dubious" credentials are on the Department for Education and Skills official register of approved education providers even though they are not accredited in the US, where they are based. The UK allows any foreign post-secondary institution to operate as long as it does not falsely claim to offer UK awards or to be a UK university.
The Observatory says the DfES register "highlights the difficulty whereby a legitimate authority attempts to screen out illegitimate providers, but because its criteria are insufficiently rigorous, it in fact serves to legitimate some of the very providers it wishes to curb".
Instances of fake or worthless qualifications issued by diploma mills and bogus institutions around the world are on the rise.
Last year, the US Government Accountability Office reported that more than a dozen federal agencies had paid a total of more than $169,000 (£95,000) to two unaccredited universities suspected of being diploma mills. The report notes that tighter US controls could cut fraudulent activity significantly because much of it hails from the US or trades on US associations.
But the problem is truly global. The Afghan Government has invalidated the results of university entrance exams for more than 6,000 students in the wake of evidence that test answers had been leaked. Last year, it was estimated that there were 10,000 holders of fake US degrees in Malaysia.
The report says fraud is unlikely to be curbed unless governments, institutions and agencies do more to tackle the root cause - the lack of legitimate post-secondary education opportunities, particularly in poor countries.
It calls for the closure of legal loopholes that allow fake institutions and accreditation agencies to operate. And it says institutions must clamp down on plagiarism.
Commenting on the report, the UK's Quality Assurance Agency said it was "genuinely concerned" about fraud and recognised the gravity of the problem.
Educational fraud: a global problem
The report says there are recorded problems at three distrinct stages in the educational supply chain:
1 Stage 1 : this includes bogus visas, false entry qualifications, dubious admissions policies and fabricated/substandard institutional accreditation.
2 Process stage : this includes bogus institutions, plagiarism and dishonest grading.
3 Output stage : this includes fraudulent qualification.
- Australia: New South Wales Education Minister tells state parliament that fake degrees are on sale from at least 40 sources in Australia
- China : said to be the base for backalleypress.com, selling degree certificates and transcrips from the buyer's institution of choice
- Hawaii : the American International University of Management and Technology is close dby a court order in 2002 for failing to comply with state law. But it is still listed on the DfES register of provider in the UK
- Israel : teachers, police and civil servants are among 5,500 people alleged to have been awarded fake University of Lincolnshire and Humberside degrees
- Nepal : Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority reports tens of thousands of govenment employees (including teachers and police) holding fake degrees
- South Africa : in 2003 it was estimated that more than 15 per cent of South Afticans obtained their employment using bogus qualifications
- Thailand : a candidate for the Thai Senate has application rejected when it was discovered he had a degree form an "unrecognised university"
- UK : Ucas reports 1,000 fake qualifications among home and foreign applicants in 2004, twice the number in the previous year
- US : State of Michigan lists 600 fake, unauthorised or substandard institutions