GLOBAL: Detecting application fraud

Some of the most sophisticated mechanisms for tackling fraud in admissions applications have been developed by West African countries Nigeria and Ghana, the British Council conference was told.

The greater the number of applications from outside a country's borders the greater the challenge in trying to verify them, experts said.

"As the globalisation and internationalisation of higher education has grown, we have seen a growing problem of fraud in applications to study," said Anthony McClaran, Chief Executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, UK, who chaired the session on fraud and verification.

But the percentage of applications tends to rise and fall according to the success of innovations in verification.

Types of fraud include text lifted from other documents, fictitious language capability or education history, forged qualifications, fictitious references, impersonation and stolen identity.

Some are carried out to gain admission to courses unfairly, others to secure loans and benefits, gain residency illegally, or assist people trafficking.

"This type of fraud ruins the reputation of institutions, blocks access for applicants who do meet the requirements, and wastes money spent on students who are not capable of pursuing their academic career," said Claus Lange, Head of Division (Africa, the Americas, Western Europe and the Middle East) at Uni-assist in Germany.

A lot is to be gained therefore in collaboration across borders, sharing knowledge of countries' different responses, and information from databases, experts from the UK, Sweden and Germany said.

These included the use of the most sophisticated anti-fraud tool yet devised: a scratch-card system used by Nigeria and Ghana. The card is sent with the student's application and can be scratched to reveal a serial number and one-use pin number to access or verify the student's official examination record online. Nigeria has been using it for the past three years.

"It would be nice to have that in Europe too," said Lange.

Differences emerged in the way fraud checks are made in Germany, Sweden and the UK.

Uni-assist, which works with 125 German universities and checks more than 60% of international applications for places in the nation's universities, makes use of a database of bogus documents and tries to establish direct links with institutions in countries where documents are more commonly forged, in order to help with verification.

The Agency for Higher Education Services in Sweden, which is largely funded by fees paid by 35 universities nationwide, uses different procedures according to the country where the suspected application was made.

"For Iraq, Iran and the former Russian territories, we always ask for original documents and verify them with the ministries or institutions directly," said Tuula Kuosmanen, director of the Department for Evaluation of Foreign Qualifications.

"For Bangladesh, we ask for verification from the Secondary Education Boards. In Pakistan some boards have made it possible to verify online but only if the roll number used matches that on the certificate."

The British Universities and Colleges Admission Service, which processes 600,000 applications in the UK, virtually all of them online, only checks applications flagged as suspect by Hunter software.

The software is used to automatically check applications against millions of records and check names against dozens of criteria, such as date of birth, postcode and telephone numbers.

The service employs four full-time and three part-time staff members to verify suspect applications within five days.

"The high-risk applications may be those from applicants over 21, not in full-time education, where the application is incomplete, where there is no reference from an academic source, no qualification or exam result, or they are applying after the initial deadline when there is most pressure on the system," said Ros Fenney, Application Services Manager at UCAS.

Lange said efforts are being made to establish an EU wide database to share information and more could be done to tap into the links between the UK and Commonwealth countries, France and Francophone countries and Spain and Latin American countries to share information about documents and certificates from a wider spread of countries.

But there remains a surprising level of resistance among some national authorities and some institutions - even in Germany - to tackle the issue.

"We have problems when there is little or no support from foreign institutions, the issuing authorities co-operate with the applicant, or universities are reluctant to invest time in searching for fraud," he said.