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Fraud in international education: how secure is your score?

Young people are crossing international borders to study at an incredible rate, drawn largely by the promise of self-improvement. But the fruits of globalisation can be seductively sweet.

Photo: Digitary

The global nature of the fraud risk requires coordinated, global solutions

“I think [fraud] is a huge problem,” says Tim Duggan, business development manager at Irish company, Digitary, which is one of a generation of secure digital data companies that is active in the higher education space, working to digitise and secure academic transcripts and records.

“We see fraudulent credentials as not just being a problem for people who said they’ve been to college [and haven’t], we actually see a real problem with people faking credentials to get into college in the first place,” he says. “That’s where a lot of administration offices spend huge amounts of money in simply verifying credentials.”

Daniel Guhr, managing director of Illuminate Consulting Group, whose company has researched fraud and quality assurance in international education, agrees. “From gaining admission to a ranked university to accessing local labour market opportunities to illegal immigration, fraud is a growing problem due to both the sheer increase in scale and the diversification of international student mobility,” he says, “and the rewards from committing fraud often far outweigh the risk.”

“We actually see a real problem with people faking credentials to get into college in the first place”

The incidents that we do hear about are a reminder that the risks of fraud persist, and in the remodelled visa regimes of many prime destination countries – where the onus is on the institution to ensure the applicant adheres to the rules – the pressure is mounting not to get it wrong.

Meanwhile, in countries where the students feel pressure to make sure they get a place at a university overseas, there are agents who have worked out how to exploit the weakest points of entry and ensure enrolment success, says Terry Crawford, co-founder of InitialView.

Crawford and his wife set up this company in China as another third party service provider promising to give surety to educators in the admissions process. His company conducts unscripted video interviews of applicants to capture English ability and interpersonal skills. Since 2009, he has worked with more than 200 institutions, most of which are in the US, and the resulting interviews have been part of more than 50,000 applications from 60 countries.

Pressure to succeed

“Here’s what would surprise most US universities,” Crawford relates. “Agents (those who help students apply to US schools, not those who have official relationships with schools) target schools that don’t do their due diligence.”
He continues, “An agent’s goal in China is simply to get their student into the highest ranked college/university, since most agents are paid on a success fee basis.”

Many international students may apply to colleges in multiple countries, all with different rules, and the need for clarity is clear.

As Louise Harris, head of student recruitment at the University of Exeter in the UK, points out, even proving the financial evidence required can be a minefield. “For an international student, or for any student, getting a bulk amount of money together is generally incredibly hard, unless you are coming from a family of incredible affluence.”

Financial veracity

The issue of verification of adequate funds, which international students have to be able to prove to varying levels depending on the target country, is a real hornet’s nest. One anonymous commentator related that changes in currency exchange rates on a student’s funds lump sum can even make the difference between a visa refusal or acceptance.

“My English was not sufficient, so I paid a company on the internet to apply”

Meanwhile, it is well known that borrowing the money required is normal in countries such as India, where education loan companies are commonplace, existing to service this need in a nation which typically sees whole communities contributing towards the cost of an overseas education, and where access to large pools of ready cash can be difficult.

“Official US government statistics are fuzzy at best, but visa officials have confirmed in public that “failing to prove sufficient funds is the most common reason that consular officers deny student visas under Section 214(b),” explains Cheryl DarrupBoychuck in the US.

It was precisely this issue which led her to create FundsV, an innovative funds verification system operating on a secure digital global platform with 4,500 global banks on board.

FundsV offers a secure proof process and works closely with some US institutions, reducing the burden and admin load for their admissions officers.

“By simply posting the FundsV option for applicants to prove sufficient funds electronically, one client has drastically reduced the number of applicants with ‘questionable’ financial documentation,” explains Darrup-Boychuck.

Education fraud 101

The avenues to fraud are many and varied, but many routes involve hiring an external party to provide some form of black market expertise. Nathan Bowes, an experienced admissions officer in the UK, says, “Some individuals make careers for themselves using their talents of developing such documentation by charging ridiculous prices to their clients; therefore, it is practically offered to students and when desperate, it then becomes rather appealing.”

The industry of falsified documentation is enormous. Guhr estimates that “the global fraud industry accounts for more than $3bn in revenue”.

Mong Kok is the heart of Hong Kong’s illicit document business, where dodgy certificates can be fairly easily located and bought. Photo: Milla Bath.

Mong Kok is the heart of Hong Kong’s illicit document business, where dodgy certificates can be easily located and bought. Photo: Milla Bath.

Stroll down Khao San Road in Bangkok, or through Manila’s Qiaopo Market, or scroll through countless online forums, and soon enough you can advance straight to doctoral level, gain accreditation to drive, or hand pick your own IELTS score (tip: scores at the high end may arouse suspicion).

Queenie, 19, now studies chemistry at a university in England: “One of the big ones,” she confesses. “But my English was not sufficient, so I paid a company on the internet to apply.” Was she worried about getting caught? “Every day until I received the letter!” she laughs. “Now my English is much better and everything is very positive.”

English ability – a grey area?

Countless students may find English proficiency rules nerve-wracking. Liesl Barnett, head of academic support at Taylors College, Perth in Australia – which provides a foundation pathway to the University of Western Australia – says she is under no illusion that all students are playing fair: “I do sometimes think, with certain students, that there is just no way that they have the correct IELTS for entry to foundation – but apparently ‘IELTS sitting by a substitute’ is a lucrative business in China.”

Stories of students begging university lecturers to forgive their poorly written or exquisitely plagiarised essays are the stuff of legend on university campuses.

Exam testing companies are continually trying to step up test security. Professor Gary Banks, chief executive of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), has questioned the same commitment to rooting out fraud across institutions.

As a keynote speaker at 2015’s Universities Australia conference, he addressed “rumours and anecdotes of easy teaching and marking to ‘get [international students] through’. This appears to be a truth that only occasionally dares to speak its name.”

Groningen’s global agenda

The global nature of the fraud risk requires coordinated, global solutions, which is why the Groningen Declaration is one of the most exciting developments of the last few years towards students being in control of their own, digitised and secure, academic data.

“What we tried to pull off is basically the introduction of a monetary model in a way”

Herman de Leeuw, a civil servant working for an arm of the Ministry of Education, Dienst Uitvoering Onderwijs in the Netherlands, has been pivotal in getting the Groningen movement to where it is today, with more than 50 signatories including EAIE, Universities Australia, AACRAO in the US and CHESICC in China, the only MoE-approved institution for the verification of HE credentials.

De Leeuw, secretary of the Groningen Declaration Network, compares the ownership of digital data around academic attainment to global banking transactions, which are nearly all conducted online.

“Why is it that we deal with money, banking online and we don’t do that with skills records?” he challenges. “Because the underlying infrastructure could more or less be the same.”

Above and beyond the Groningen Declaration achievements, UNESCO has set up a portal to detail higher education institutions “recognised or otherwise sanctioned by competent authorities in participating countries”. In the US, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation has its own International Quality Group (CIQG), also working collaboratively with other international stakeholders to make progress in international quality assurance.

Initiatives such as these are reshaping the conversation about education fraud by taking a practical approach to addressing the problem.

Trust your leader?

Federal or government intervention in the admissions process, meanwhile, is a crucial component in the fight against education fraud, but there is a danger that outsourcing identity checks to private providers could lead to loopholes. Governments, on the one hand, want to keep open channels to international students, but should always prioritise the integrity of borders over student migration.

In the UK, an interview is usually required by the Home Office to assure officials around the bona fides of an applicant. However, Nasim, a 22-year-old Indian national in transit to London via Hong Kong, joked that in his case, it was easy to pass the phone to a friend or relative with a stronger command of the language.

In Australia, tougher laws have been introduced that require immigration authorities to conduct interviews by both video and phone to provide another level of discretion to the actual visa granting process. However, the Australian government’s new Genuine Temporary Entrant (GTE) test has been criticised by stakeholders for the spurious decisions stemming from interview process.

“Apparently ‘IELTS sitting by a substitute’ is a lucrative business in China”

The Australian government has rightfully come under criticism for outsourcing eligibility tests to colleges with clear commercial interests in allowing underqualified students to progress. The United States is far stricter on prospective students, insisting on an in-person interview in all cases.

Victory to a degree

The situation is far from dire. It is important to remember that for every fudged transcript or dodgy provider, thousands of international students conduct themselves with the utmost integrity. The majority are impervious to the market for fraud; they too would welcome the industry’s drive to ensure genuine students can be identified, supported and helped to succeed. Still, savvy stakeholders are not naïve in thinking that every international student will take the noble, more challenging path to entry.

There is significant and collaborative progress being made – with tech software and encryption facility helping – towards reducing the administrative admissions burden so that, as one commentator put it, university staff will one day be able to focus less on compliance and more on enhancing the unique experience of being an international student.

Because currently, despite the modern universities’ Latinate mottos and increasingly large marketing budgets, the culture is preoccupied by abudans cautela non nocet: One can never be too careful.

  • This article is an abridged version of an article in issue #9 of The PIE Review, our quarterly magazine.

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