JOHANNESBURG – A university degree is a valuable commodity to have when entering the job market, particularly if the economy is sluggish and fewer companies are hiring new employees.
Unfortunately, when competition is tough and livelihoods are at stake, many will do anything for employment and a salary to make ends meet.
Whether motivated by ambition or sheer desperation, it seems that a growing number of people in South Africa are getting caught for faking their credentials.
Figures released by the Ministry of Higher Education showed a spike in reported cases from 47 incidents in the 2010/2011 financial year to 982 in 2017/2018.
With the presumption that many of these cases still remain unreported, this worrying trend has prompted lawmakers to strengthen existing legislation.
“As a decisive step forward, Parliament amended the National Qualifications Framework Act of 2008 in a bid to address the problem of fake credentials,” says Leana de Beer, Chief Operations Officer at Feenix, an online crowdfunding platform for university students.
“The amended law — signed by President Cyril Ramaphosa in August last year — makes it a criminal offence to lie about your credentials and empowers the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) to establish separate registers for misrepresented or fake qualifications,” de Beer explains.
Academic fraud is an increasing global problem as the internet and new technology make it easier to buy and sell false degrees, according to a report published by the National Student Clearinghouse, a US-based NGO. You can either buy a certificate from a fake institution or a fake qualification purporting to be from a legitimate university.
Although people might be less inclined to lie on their CVs if it means they could end up in jail, why do many take the risk in the first place?
“In a country like South Africa with high levels of unemployment and inequality, the problem takes on a different dimension,” says De Beer.
“Many are financially excluded from attending university, reducing their chances of finding a job with a good salary.”
To make matters worse, the country’s unemployment rate of 29 percent is the highest since 2008.
“Young people face a double whammy with financial barriers making it difficult for them to access tertiary education coupled with dim prospects of finding a job if they don’t have the necessary credentials,” De Beer points out.
De Beer is encouraged by the government’s efforts to weed out fraudsters but says that our leaders should not lose focus of the “push factors”. If the convenience of buying a fake qualification from so-called “diploma mills” is an attractive prospect, it’s important to consider what might be pushing people in that direction, she adds.
“It’s not a stretch to presume that when faced with financial barriers to graduating or accessing university, some people might be driven to lie about their qualifications,” De Beer says.
Many students who are not eligible for government financial aid can’t afford to go to university, while others are unable to graduate due to historic debt. This is where crowdfunding could be an answer.
“Feenix was launched to help these students connect with a host of donors so they can raise the funds needed to pay their tuition fees, including settling historical debt,” de Beer explains.
“It’s important that our youth be given the chance to earn their degrees, which is why we consider Feenix to be a tool for social change. Increased access to higher education could be an effective strategy to consider in eradicating fraudulent qualifications in South Africa,” she concludes.