Academic credential fraud – In search of lasting solutions
The sense of consternation created due to the growing demand for additional qualifications has led to a situation in which those who cannot manage the catch-up are tempted to seek short-cut mechanisms for obtaining degrees to ensure the continuity of their earnings and job status. Nowhere is this pressure being felt more in Ethiopia than in the civil service which accommodates more than five million employees.
The sector has recently been embroiled in a variety of crises related to illicit credentials, prompting nation-wide efforts to address the situation – efforts which may serve as lessons for other countries facing similar challenges.
Much was known in the public arena about the rampant market for illicit credentials long before the government took action. But when it did, the Ethiopian civil service, bedevilled by the mushrooming of false credentials for employment and promotion purposes, became engulfed in a wave of government crackdowns.
The government claims the crackdown was prompted by inefficiencies within the civil service and the huge amount of money it pours in to pay thousands of employees who earn benefits through false credentials.
Whatever the truth, many have welcomed the move with the feeling that it is long overdue.
The last twelve months in particular have witnessed the arduous checking by government of the veracity of credentials submitted for promotion and employment. This verification has been done in cooperation with the educational institutions from which the degrees were supposed to have been obtained.
Offers of clemency
In a bid to facilitate the crackdown, open promises have been made to employees holding false credentials to confess their transgressions and save themselves from dismissal, civil suits and criminal charges.
The clemency seems to have worked as a significant number of civil servants have already admitted their wrongdoings. Local newspaper Addis Zemen (20 October 2017) revealed that around 7,000 civil servants from the Oromia region alone – one of nine such regions in the country – have admitted to having used false credentials to obtain undeserved benefits.
The most dominant counterfeit documents were found to be degrees obtained from recently established private colleges and those bearing the names of public universities. The same region is still reviewing over 3,000 reported cases of dubious credentials said to be held by civil servants.
In a similar vein, over 500 civil servants in the Amhara region, and 40 employees of the government in the Gambela region have admitted to flouting the law. The list of those exposed in all these regions includes individuals who assume various administrative and official positions within the system.
These revelations have directed the spotlight to remaining parts of the country and the federal civil service where the government is planning to expand its crackdown.
As reported in the capital city’s newspaper Addis Lisan (17 November 2017), the Addis Ababa City Administration Office of Public Service and Human Resource Development has recently announced that those with false credentials had a month in which to admit their wrongdoing, after which the office would be taking the necessary administrative and legal measures. The city accommodates more than 100,000 civil servants.
The federal civil service looks set to embark upon a similar purge.
The measures have sent strong reverberations across the nation. Employers have begun to take extra care in screening the credentials submitted for employment and-or promotion. Close cooperation is being forged between civil service offices and individual institutions of higher learning and the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency, or HERQA, which keeps a database of graduates from private institutions.
Those who have been following the legal route in earning genuine credentials have also felt vindicated after having lost hope in the system.
Despite the message that such violations will not be tolerated, some doubt that the new moves will stand the test of time. They believe optimism is misplaced as the measures taken so far are narrowly focused and the government needs to broaden its net to address the full extent of the problem.
While it is argued that the focus of the current crackdown has been on counterfeit documents fabricated by individuals, this excludes the verification of degrees issued by institutions that continue to register thousands of students who do not meet admission requirements set by the ministry of education.
As experience over the last decade and a half has shown, there are students who attend programmes for which they are not qualified in the first place. This has become a major breeding ground for illicit degrees and a huge income earner for institutions that have little regard for the law. Given this situation, observers argue that this is also a major route for issuing of illegal degrees and calls for no less attention.
Broader participation needed
Although HERQA has been entrusted with the task of regulating illegal activities undertaken by higher education institutions, both its limited capacity and the sophisticated nature of the transgressions have made the issue of leaving such a huge responsibility to a single organisation untenable.
That is why institutions that are hell-bent on breaking the law continue to outmanoeuvre the agency. And that is why efforts made in this direction are effectively piecemeal and not fully effective. I would argue that the situation calls for the participation of other parties that have a stake in guarding the system from fraudulent activities of this type.
Among other things, what the new crackdown has highlighted is the key gate-keeping role of employers and the government in terms of stemming the negative effects of false credentials. A simple verification of credentials at the point of entry or during promotion could save a lot of trouble and damage that is not easy to manage at a later date. The government’s resolve in addressing the challenge is also the key lever behind the success of the crackdown.
If meaningful and lasting solutions are to be found against illicit credentials, the government's control mechanisms should be on a par with the sophisticated manner in which the credentials are obtained. This may include the task of verifying credentials that have been obtained through illegal admissions to educational institutions that defy national regulations. But the best place to check this still remains the public sector where such transgressions can easily be traced.
Wondwosen Tamrat is associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His email addresses are: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.