No action against those who issued fake degrees to MPs

Bogus degrees are a problem worldwide, and Pakistan is certainly no exception. Following extensive media coverage, politicians are being prosecuted for possessing fake degrees – but no action is being taken against those who issued the ‘qualifications’ or were responsible for verifying them.

In 2008 the government under former military dictator Pervez Musharraf – who is now under arrest and facing a case of high treason as well – amended election laws to make holding a university degree mandatory for qualifying to become a member of parliament.

A large number of the politicians did not meet the requirement but found ways to obtain fake degrees so that they could contest elections. Nearly 80 such candidates – 54 confirmed – got elected, but their political opponents caused a hue and cry over the veracity of their degrees.

The issue became national in 2010, because of an unrelenting media blitz of articles about the qualifications of politicians and Pakistan’s Supreme Court taking notice of it, following requests from academics, civil society representatives and veteran politicians.

But while the media buzz around bogus degrees in now in its third year, and remains a hot political topic, there has been little focus on those who issued the false qualifications or the accountability of officials in the electoral commission who did not verify politicians’ qualifications five years back.

Legal proceedings and convictions against the 54 confirmed cases of MPs with fraudulent qualifications are continuing, but a second round is needed to unearth the hands behind the large-scale selling of fake degrees.

The scandal has placed a big question mark over the entire university system.

Institutions involved

According to a list of fake degree-holding MPs submitted by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to the Supreme Court, 13 of the qualifications were from religious universities and 37 carried the names of esteemed institutions recognised by the Higher Education Commission (HEC).

A further five bogus qualifications were in the names of international universities not recognised in Pakistan, including the International University of America, Eire International University and Strassford University, all in the UK.

According to information obtained by University World News, 10 invalid degrees were in the name of Lahore’s University of the Punjab, another 10 were from University of Sindh, and four were from Shah Abdul Latif University in Khairpur.

Three bogus degrees bore the name of the University of Peshawar, two were from Bahauddin Zakaria University in Multan, and there was one fake qualification each from the University of Karachi, Gomal University, Hajvery University, Quetta’s Balochistan University, Islamia University in Bahawalpur and Islamabad’s Riphah International University.

Fake versus invalid

Of the 54 counterfeit degrees, 34 have been categorised as ‘fake’ and 20 ‘invalid’, HEC sources told University World News:

“Some of those parliamentarians did graduate genuinely and passed the examination but tendered fake intermediate certificates to be eligible for taking graduation exams. In such cases we term the graduation degree as 'invalid'.

“A fake or bogus degree is that which looks like a university degree but there is no back-up record of that degree with the universities’ examinations and records departments. Such degrees may have been printed outside, or university-printed copies might have been sold with fake stamps and signatures”, the source said.

University World News found interesting information on what MPs did to obtain degrees to qualify for the first ever ‘graduate parliament’, and on university staff who left no stone unturned to help them.

For instance, former member of the Punjab assembly Shoukat Aziz Bhatti submitted a genuine degree, allegedly provided by staff of the University of Punjab. He won in the 2008 election and was an MP for five years. But electoral commission probing revealed that the genuine degree in fact belonged to Shoukat Aziz Sheikh.

Another case involved Sindh provincial assembly member Mukesh Kumar, who submitted a genuine degree. But the HEC discovered recently, from the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education of Hyderabad, that Mukesh had tendered the intermediate certificate of another Mukesh Kumar, who had a different father’s name and date of birth.

Calls for further action

“University staff or the groups outside universities who run the business of fake degrees, and the staff of the election commission who ignored their responsibility to verify the required academic credentials of contesting politicians in 2008, should be taken to task for this crime and negligence,” said Sadiq Umrani, a national politician of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party.

“It was probably for the same reason [possible action against itself] that the election commission remained sluggish in implementing the Supreme Court’s order of 2010,” Umrani told University World News.

The 2010 Supreme Court order directed the election commission to initiate action against all people accused of “committing forgery and of using, as genuine, documents which they knew or at least had reason to believe to be forged”.

The court ordered the ECP to conduct investigations in such cases “honestly, efficiently and expeditiously”, and judges to conclude resulting court cases without delay.

But nothing happened until Pakistan’s highest court acted again last month, summoning the secretary of the election commission to appear in person on 28 March and state why court orders were not being implemented.

The ECP failed to admit fault for sluggish proceedings, prompting the enraged court to issue stricter orders requiring immediate action. The chief justice said during that hearing: “The ECP is not a monarch that can do whatever it wills, nor is it a stakeholder in elections.”

Several former parliamentarians have been jailed and fined so far, but neither the court nor the HEC or election commission has hinted at punishment for those who allowed or helped politicians to cheat the nation and the electoral system.

Atta-ur-Rahman, former science minister, HEC founding chair and current president of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, mentioned two types of fake degrees. “In one type, assembly members simply forged a degree and no university was involved. In the second type, senior officials of a university may have been involved,” he told University World News.

“The officials involved should be given exemplary punishments.”

Islamabad-based academic Isa Daudpota said responsibility lay with the ECP for failing to verify the authenticity of the academic credentials it asked for with nomination papers in 2008.

“The Supreme Court is also responsible for not pushing the ECP and HEC to report timely compliance after its 2010 order,” he told University World News. He has been calling for new senior people in the election commission: “Current bureaucrats may not be able to deliver, given their past records.”

Daudpota said he had been writing to the commission since 2003, when the problem came to his notice. But former chief election commissioner Justice Irshad and former ECP secretary Kanwar Dilshad took no action, saying they did not have time to verify the degrees of candidates contesting the 2002 elections.

The commission made the same excuse in 2008, according to Daudpota, saying that the two weeks between the deadline for filing nominations and confirming candidacies was insufficient.

A renowned physicist, education policy advisor and visiting professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences, Abdul Hameed Nayyar, told University World News that there were three primary sources of fake degrees: “Illegitimate and unaccredited institutions; corrupt officials of recognised and legitimate institutions; and conmen who print fake degrees of recognised institutions.”

Nayyar said that determining the basis for punishing institutions whose names have been used on bogus degrees is not easy. “How can one punish institutions who simply disown the degree? Punish the culprit first who is found to flaunt a fake degree to gain illicit benefits.”

Organisations that provide fake degrees for money operate successfully in a number of developed countries, including the United States and Britain. While higher education sectors in those countries do not accept such qualifications, others may easily be duped.

Nayyar argued that when corrupt officials are identified, institutions should take legal action against them. “The punishment should be a deterrent against any such malpractice in future. The HEC should follow the cases, and allow no complacency.

“It is also important that the person receiving the illicit degree is punished severely, not only for indulging in deception but also for undermining an academic institution by promoting corruption in it. This should be unpardonable.”

Core questions sent to the HEC and the ECP went unanswered at the time of writing: Will you take action against those officials involved in the business of fake degrees? Will the ECP take action against those who ignored their responsibility to verify the academic credentials submitted back in 2008?

The same question could be asked of Pakistan’s active judiciary. Will it identify and punish those who provided fake degrees? Or will the state institutions concerned realise that action against them does not require a court order, as issuing fake degrees is a crime punishable under Pakistan’s penal code?

A thorough investigation is needed into the entire bogus degree business, and culprits must be brought to justice for undermining the credibility of the entire system.