Qualifications fraud reaching "pandemic" levels in SA

With qualifications fraud reaching “pandemic” levels in SA, several tertiary institutions are stepping up to create more secure digital certificate systems to guarantee the legitimacy of their credentials.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that qualification fraud is threatening to undermine the very foundations of South Africa’s system of higher education and, in turn, the economy.

So says Stephen Logan, CEO of PrivySeal.com, a technology platform that makes genuine qualifications highly visible through encrypted, real-time digital credentials that are managed by the Certificate Issuer using their own data store.

“Qualification Fraud is a global problem, but it is reaching pandemic status in South Africa,” commented Logan during an interview with Bruce Whitfield on 702/Cape Talk recently. The issue is once again in the spotlight, with allegations swirling around the validity of well-known economist Thabi Leoka’s PhD.

Logan adds that this kind of dishonesty undermines genuine qualifications and the entire education sector, but it does not stop there. “Qualifications fraud devalues knowledge and hard-won expertise, undermining our trust in genuine qualifications through its corrosive impact on decision-making and the resulting cost of horrific outcomes such as the insolvency of key institutions.”

Lie about your credentials, and you could go to jail

Scandals involving fake degrees and embellished CVs are commonplace in South Africa, with even people at the highest levels being caught out. In 2018, the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) received 982 reports of fraudulent qualifications.

This situation prompted the government to pass new legislation, the National Qualifications Framework Amendments Act of 2019, last October, that introduces harsher penalties designed to stem the tide. In terms of the new legislation, people who misrepresent or lie about their credentials could face jail time. The consequences of such dissembling range from hefty fines to up to five years in prison.

The Act also seeks to hold institutions that misrepresent qualifications or issue unregistered qualifications accountable and permits the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) – the country’s apex verification body for all qualifications in the country – to establish and maintain separate registers for professional designations, misrepresented qualifications and fraudulent qualifications, effectively naming and shaming guilty individuals and lifting the lid on bogus institutions.

According to Jon Foster-Pedley, dean and director of Henley Business School Africa, the legislation is to be welcomed, but institutions also need to step up to do their part to address the scourge.

“In South Africa, a university education is a valuable commodity and a public good. It is literally the foundation upon which we can build the economy,” he says.

“One person lying about a degree can have an outsize effect, potentially undermining the performance and credibility of the business they work for or, if they are in the public sector, compromising service delivery to thousands. This is an issue that goes way beyond just protecting the reputation of a single institution.”

Linda Ronnie and Suki Goodman from the University of Cape Town agree, writing, “For employers, hiring those who have falsified their qualifications or lied on their CVs can lead to costly exposure to legal action, high staff turnover, lost revenue and public reputational damage which may take years to repair.

Institutions and companies must do more to combat qualification fraud

Henley Business School is one of a handful of South African institutions and the first business school in the country to take action against rampant qualifications fraud. The school has teamed up with PrivySeal to develop a real-time digital and encrypted certification system to make it easy and secure for prospective employers to check that anyone who says they have a degree from Henley is telling the truth.

The system is already used by a wide range of institutions and authorities, including qualification bodies, statutory regulators, government agencies, recognised professional organisations, industry associations, corporations and educational institutions.

Speaking to Daily Maverick, the founder and executive chairman of research and consulting firm Krutham, Stuart Theobald said that in many cases, people are able to get away with their claims for so long because of “a mixture of optimistic thinking… where qualifications haven’t been produced, and an assumption of probity just on the basis of an existing reputation”.

“Whenever a company is appointing someone, the psychology is to think the best of them… Institutionally, you’re geared to think the best of them.”

However, due diligence to weed out resume fakers is important because researchers from the University of Minnesota found that those who are comfortable exaggerating their skills are also more comfortable being immoral in other ways.

Why do people do it even as the stakes get higher?

The reasons for qualification fraud are varied and numerous, but many have their roots in seeking to attain a status that affords respect and opportunity without delay or cost.

University of Minnesota professor Michelle Duffy said people who lie on their CVs are likely to have been unemployed for a long time and appear to be motivated by jealousy for other people who have landed jobs when they haven’t. “Envy was one of the things we found that really mattered.”

Logan comments that because education is an easy marker of social mobility, frequently opening doors to significant opportunity, having a degree from a highly prestigious and often expensive foreign or local university is the ultimate in prestige. “That prestige alone may be enough to be appointed to high-profile roles without the need to demonstrate competence.”

“Of course, as the most unequal society in the world, poor South Africans can escape the poverty trap through education, and pretending to have an education, that few but the rich can usually attain, is a strong temptation.”

Foster-Pedley adds that we need to question whether we have too much reverence for higher qualifications today when we should, in fact, be revering competencies. “If you have a person with the capabilities and experience, what is the pressure that’s impelling him or her to claim a PhD that they don’t have? Are we putting people in positions because they have qualifications rather than capabilities? It should be the other way around.”

“This situation is symptomatic of a bigger issue,” continues Foster-Pedley. “We cannot grow an economy without skills. And while we need doctorates, while we need higher qualifications, we also need competent people in roles, and we should be thinking more broadly, generally within organisations, about what constitutes skills and capabilities, than just demanding a level of education.”

Useful resources:
Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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