According to the most recent report of Accredibase, the UK-based background screening company Verifile Limited, there was a staggering 48% increase in the number of known degree or diploma mills operating worldwide last year. It identified more than 2,500 bogus institutions across all regions, but primarily in North America and Europe.
With lures like 'Obtaining a diploma/PhD/MBA/BA...has never been so easy!' it is little wonder that they are so popular - both for customers requiring a competitive edge and for an industry that is said to command an estimated US$1 billion worldwide each year.
While the existence of such fraudulent entities is hardly a new phenomenon, what's different today is a convergence of two factors: an explosion in demand for post-secondary qualifications (as the ticket for participation in the global economy) along with the means to respond to that demand in the form of a highly malleable, accessible and potentially anonymous online platform.
But credential fraud is also unwittingly providing the tools for its own demise. Indeed, in undermining the integrity of the private higher education sector as a whole, it is galvanising and helping to standardise official tertiary accreditation and registration processes worldwide.
Verifile Accredibase's report determined that the majority of known degree mills continue to operate from bases in the US. It identified 1,008 mills, an increase of 20% from the previous year. Within the country, more than 40% of providers hailed from locations in the states of California, Hawaii, Washington and Florida - although there was a considerable increase in the number setting up business in the district of Columbia.
Outside of North America, the largest number of known degree mills - 603 - are in Europe. The UK is the top European location for degree mills, hosting 339 mills, an increase of 25% from last year - an inflationary leap that brings the number of unaccredited universities to more than double those that are legitimate.
Key is that while it is illegal to award degrees without proper accreditation within the UK, there is no such regulation for those institutions operating under the aegis of foreign accreditation agencies.
Growth elsewhere in the world is significant, but most remarkably in an expansion of bogus mills operating at unknown locations - their numbers swelled by 170% from last year to more than 800. Report co-author Eyal Ben-Cohen suggested the main reasons as being a combination of pragmatism and caution.
In the first place, he explained, "it is easier to start such an operation without going through the trouble of having offshore accounts, mail forwarding addresses etc, which require more investment and sophistication. Starting a mill without any address or telephone number [and] offering a service by email only is an easy route into this market."
Second, in response to the high profile nature of prosecutions of degree mill operators in the US, both established operators and newcomers to the market have attempted to erase the location of their mills by going deeper into cyberspace.
But, Ben-Cohen added: "It is important to note that we do not use the location of the server as an indication of the location of the mill. We simply do not see any correlation between the two."
In fact, websites can be moved easily and domain names can be kept private. As a result, he said, "all these addresses define [is] the jurisdiction these mills are operating from - or at least claim to operate from."
The inherent evasiveness and transience of these providers' activities brings Ben-Cohen to state unequivocally that "there is really no other way to describe the issuance of fake university degrees [than] as....organised crime."
And it is in combating this criminal activity that George Gollin, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US, has earned the moniker 'defender of academic integrity'.
Beginning with an exposé of Parkwood University in 2002, Gollin's biggest coup was exposing the fraudulent activities of Saint Regis University, an institution improbably based in (then) war-ravaged Liberia.
It took five years and a series of labyrinthine events before the American cozeners were charged by US government authorities. From 1999, Saint Regis University and its 121 affiliated institutions worldwide had sold an estimated 10,800 credentials - ranging from law degrees to high school diplomas - for upwards of US$7.3 million.
Gollin told University World News: "It's really time we fixed this problem...I worry that the governing environment in the United States has become so dysfunctional that we must tolerate these sorts of activities because our leaders are too paralysed to act in the public interest."
Although the development of countervailing strategies has been slow and uneven, governments are increasingly establishing strict and centralised standards for accreditation, thus safeguarding operations for legitimate private higher education providers.
Many countries - such as the Netherlands and Bosnia and Herzegovina - have or are implementing laws limiting the use of the word 'university' or 'academy' for sole use by accredited institutions.
Or, as with India's recent National Academic Depository Bill 2011, the establishment of a national electronic database of academic qualifications will help separate the wheat from the chaff.
But with the expansion of private higher education in Latin America, parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, there is concern about bogus providers moving in and setting up shop to absorb demand.
The US remains the odd man out in that no one federal ministry of education or centralised agency regulates tertiary institutions. Instead it is left to individual states to regulate fraudulent activity. And with the current economic striations, enforcement avenues are also being reduced.
The situation will undoubtedly improve if the Diploma and Accreditation Integrity Protection Act 2009 is passed into law. But before then, some states are taking matters into their own hands - as has California by reinstating a programme of approval for postsecondary institutions. Idaho and Missouri have also recently passed similar legislation.
Although strategies at a national level are crucial, the successful enforcement of regulations will not be possible until the implementation of international protocols for cooperation and the sharing of information between jurisdictions are facilitated.
And yet no amount of regulatory effort will work as long as there are customers who are prepared to buy degrees and criminal organisations to sell them.
* The Verifile Accredibase report Diploma and Accreditation Mills: New trends in credential abuse was published in March 2011 and can be downloaded here.
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