Digital records to tackle fake qualifications

The Indian government is planning to digitise academic records as part of a drive against fake degrees and institutions at a time when prominent public figures are being challenged to prove that they are entitled to the degrees and qualifications they claim to have.

According to plans announced by the Human Resource Development Ministry, the National Academic Depository, which will start functioning this year, will include authenticated academic records from 2016 onwards with the government ensuring that all institutions, including school boards, issue digitised certificates with digital signatures from this academic year.

The scheme requires academic institutions to provide templates of certificates and other details to the National Academic Depository, or NAD, and will establish criteria for certificate data formats – a process expected to take some time.

The move also comes against a background of companies complaining of rising fraudulent qualification claims in job applications and a lack of a system to verify records.

Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar, has said in public speeches that once the scheme is in place fake degrees and impersonation will be impossible. He has also expressed confidence that students pursuing studies abroad will find it helpful to have their certifications accessible on the NAD.

Fraudulent claims on job applications appear at all levels but were particularly highlighted when Smriti Irani – who served as India’s human resource development minister from May 2014 to July 2016 and had made statements about her qualifications that were questioned by some – narrowly escaped a petition filed against her for entering contradictory educational qualifications. The magistrate in the case said the complainant's petition was late by eleven years and the complainant appeared to be harassing her.

Importantly, the magistrate also accepted her plea in her defence that original evidence in the case was no longer available due to the passage of time. Such pleas will not hold water once the NAD is functioning.

“If degrees/diplomas/certificates are digitised, they would be perpetually in safe custody,” says Ajay K Mehra, a distinguished academic and director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Public Affairs, which specialises in the study of public institutions.

Digitisation is no panacea

Mehra, however, believes that the value of the NAD needs to be tested. “Jobs and scholarships, whether in India or abroad, are not dependent on digitisation. They are awarded on well-laid-down criteria,” he said.

According to Mehra, much would depend on networking between the agencies involved in digitisation and the institutions concerned. “Though digitised information would help quickly access the data, it is still not clear who is entitled to access,” he said.

The government has said that students will be able access their own records. However, a sticking point is that easy retrieval is being linked to students' ‘Aadhar’ cards – a national biometric identity card, the legality of which is under challenge in the Supreme Court. So far, the court has maintained a view that the cards cannot be made mandatory.

It was said last year that companies will be able to access the information on payment of a fee, though privacy concerns have emerged since then.

Rattan Lal Hangloo, vice-chancellor of Allahabad University, is sceptical about whether the scheme will reduce instances of impersonation and fake degrees and notes it is already standard practice to ask candidates to provide references from their professors to establish authenticity of degrees as well as academic performance. “Let’s wait and see how it all works,” he said.

Fake law degrees

The need for an improved system for verifying certificates was underlined in January when the Bar Council of India ran an authentication programme to weed out those ineligible to vote in the body’s hotly contested internal elections. The results of the drive, which included scrutiny of basic documents, showed at least half of the lawyers practising in various courts had degrees which could be considered suspect.

Lawyers with fake degrees are not new. In June 2015, Jitender Singh Tomar, Delhi state law minister, was forced to resign from office after he was arrested on charges of allegedly using a fake law degree to enrol in the Bar Council.

Police investigations showed his degree was not only fake but issued by an institute which had been disaffiliated from the parent Bhagalpur University in Bihar state in 1990, pointing to a larger problem of fake institutes, colleges and even fake universities functioning in remote parts of the country.

On the Bar Council verification process for lawyers, India’s Chief Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar said: "It is not only about people with false degrees, but also those with no degrees. These people go to court and practise without any authority. We need to start much before, right from the institutions," the chief justice observed.

No action on fake lists

While the regulatory body, the University Grants Commission, releases lists of fake universities each year, many have been found to be continuing to function for years after being blacklisted because the concerned states fail to act against them and the central government has limited authority in these matters.

“We have been constantly sending letters to all the states asking them to take action against fake institutes as they are jeopardising the careers of innocent students,” said Mahendra Nath Pandey, a human resource development minister of state.

This year it was discovered that 14 universities declared fake by the University Grants Commission 17 years ago continue to be in business. Some of them also have affiliated colleges and institutes issuing degrees.

The human resource development ministry now maintains a website, Know Your College, which allows students to check the legitimacy of universities and colleges they are applying to. The site is also open to potential employers and immigration authorities.