The Many Shades of Misconduct: Falsifying Academic Credentials

In today’s increasingly competitive job market, applicants for faculty and administrative positions in Canadian post-secondary institutions may be tempted to put more than their best foot forward by falsifying academic credentials. The University of Victoria recently learned that the numerous academic credentials to which an adjunct professor in its employ laid claim were seemingly fictitious. 

It will surprise no one that the University of Victoria is reviewing its hiring practices. The incident caused us to wonder how often search committees and human resources offices verify candidates’ academic credentials.

There are various estimates on the prevalence of falsified claims on resumes and CVs, ranging from 25 to 50 percent. On the internet one can discover myriad tales of the falsified credentials of corporate CEOs. Stories of falsified credentials in academia can be more memorable. Consider the case of the Dean of Admissions at MIT who had misrepresented credentials when first applying to work at the institution 28 years prior.[1] 

Those seeking false credentials to boost their competitive advantage occasionally enlist the help of diploma mill operations, one of which was exposed by the Toronto Star in December 2008. A man who had “cracked” the watermarks of highly regarded Canadian institutions was able to provide forged diplomas and transcripts that were “virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.”[2]

The Star article gives the impression that the forged credentials were meant for use in foreign job markets. If prompted to verify an applicant’s credentials, those working in post-secondary institutions in Canada are more likely to go straight to the source, contacting the registrar’s office of the degree-granting institution in question. As a countermeasure to the several hundred phone calls of this nature that York University was receiving from potential employers each week,[3] it has established a website called YU Verify through which claims might be verified online.

With the ever expanding, ever complex global higher education marketplace, applicants increasingly present credentials earned or granted abroad. This requires not only that the bona fides be verified, but that the institution granting the credentials be validated as well – to ensure that it in fact exists, and is a recognized and reputable institution of learning. A study was conducted in 2003/04 by the General Accounting Office in the United States “to discover the extent to which federal funds might have been paid to degree mills for education for federal employees.”[4] It was discovered that 463 federal employees received degrees from just three alleged degree mills.

Over 200 “unaccredited institutions” are listed on the website of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization (www.osac.state.or.us/oda), five of which have claimed operations in Canada at some point. It is illegal in that state to use the listed institutions’ credentials for academic or employment purposes in public or licensed occupations. The same is true in many other states. The US Congress is working on new legislation to battle degree mills.

It is difficult to define a degree mill, to identify perpetrators throughout the world, and maintain a current and accurate list. Keeping such a list is a risky, costly, and unending task. Many degree mills operate entirely online, making it easy for institutions to change names, websites and the countries in which they claim to operate. The field is as fluid and dynamic as the legitimate post-secondary sector.

Any organization or agency charged with the maintenance of a list of degree mills is unlikely to label the institutions as such. Some unaccredited institutions simply offer unrecognized credentials for learning that have not met any established standard. Degree and diploma mills simply sell fake credentials. Those who run businesses in the former category have been known to launch defamation suits against those who refer to their operations as degree mills.

Not everyone who holds a degree from an “unaccredited institution” has been party to perpetrating a fraud. Some unwitting customers of degree mills may believe it perfectly legitimate to have a degree awarded to them based on vague assessments of life experience or study. Such people are actually victims of fraud, having paid exorbitant amounts for their unrecognized, and in some places illegal, credential. 

In Canada, the Criminal Code contains provisions for offences under the general rubric of fraud and forgery, but the act of using falsified academic credentials is not a specific crime. Provincial restrictions on the uses of the words “university” and “degree” may no longer be sufficient to keep nefarious and fake institutions out of the country, or to deter Canadians from making false claims to academic credentials.

Charles Ungerleider, on leave from the University of British Columbia where he is a professor of the sociology of education, works as Director of Research and Knowledge Mobilization with the Canadian Council on Learning.

Stephanie Oldford is a research analyst at the Canadian Council on Learning who specializes in post secondary education.


[1]           Anonymous. (April 26, 2007). “MIT dean resigns after falsifying degrees,”
                Boston:    Reuters. Accessed March 11, 2010 at 
www.reuters.com/article/idUSN2631144020070426

[2]            Brazao, D. (December 7, 2008). “Phony degree scam exposed,” in the Toronto Star. 
   
Accessed March 12, 2010 at: www.thestar.com/printarticle/549772 .
[3]            Ibid.

[4]          Council for Higher Education Accreditation. (2010). Degree Mills: An Old Problem and a New Threat. Washington, D.C.: Council of Higher Education Accreditation. Accessed March 12, 2010 
at :www.chea.org/degreemills/frmPaper.htm