22 August 2019
Diploma mills have a big market in China and Hong Kong because academic credentials play a crucial role in a person's career advancement. Image credit: Science Policy
Diploma mills have a big market in China and Hong Kong because academic credentials play a crucial role in a person's career advancement. Image credit: Science Policy

Fake academic credentials – A due diligence challenge

In May this year, the Hong Kong police announced that they will not press charges against a suspected diploma mill scheme launched by Lifelong College, a local educational institution, citing insufficient evidence. Lifelong College came under the scanner in 2015 for alleged forging of documents and fast-tracking of degrees. In June,, a China-based tertiary education resource website which has exposed over 400 fake diploma mills in China since 2013, announced that it would no longer update the diploma mill list due to pressure from unspecified “vested interests”. These incidents reflect the severity of the issue of fake academic credentials and the difficulties in taking them down.

What is a diploma mill?

A diploma mill broadly refers to companies or institutions selling college diplomas to people with little or no actual academic work and assessment. These sellers include bogus universities or unaccredited educational institutions, selling college diplomas which are either completely fake or without accreditation by relevant public authorities.

Diploma mills have a big market in China and Hong Kong because scholarship is highly treasured in Chinese societies, in which academic credentials play a crucial role in one’s career advancement. This partly explains why participants of Lifelong College’s courses come from various occupations, including politicians, academics and business executives in Hong Kong. In addition, falsified diplomas are such a concern in China that the Hong Kong government has ordered individual insurance intermediaries who have academic certificates issued in China to submit verifications, or risk their licenses revoked for non-compliance.

Difficulties in crackdowns

To clamp down on diploma mills, the Ministry of Education of China and its local affiliates publish lists of accredited tertiary educational institutions every year for public reference. Authorities also ban exposed fake universities. However, diploma mills continue to exist, in defiance of the government crackdowns.

The reason for the resilience of diploma mills lies in the high demand for fake diplomas, resulting in continuous supply. Many fake diploma buyers are indeed themselves willful cheaters who need a certificate to ensure continued career progression.

Cracking down on diploma mills is also not always straightforward. Diploma mills have avoided government sanctions through various means, including setting up websites on foreign servers or simply changing school names after being banned. A case in point is Lifelong College, which although not censured, has changed its Chinese name and continues operations.

Due diligence efforts

Lying about educational qualifications reflects negatively on a person’s integrity and credibility, while in some instances it may bring reputational or financial damages to businesses which fail to spot a subpar candidate. This underlines the importance of verifying educational credentials. Due diligence professionals should first gain an in-depth understanding of a place’s education system to know what could be verified.

There are two important aspects of verification. A due diligence specialist should look into an educational institution for its registration status and any derogatory information associated with the organization. Certificates may then be verified by directly making enquires with the issuing institutions or checking any government verification databases, such as the China Higher Education Student Information and Career Center.

With government enforcement efforts not fully achieving the intended results, diploma mills are here to stay. Due diligence is an effective measure to cover businesses from the risk.

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The writer is a partner of Wallbrook, a global intelligence and compliance risk consultancy. He specialises in Asia with a focus on political and economic developments in the region.

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