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Why unending fight against fake degrees has been a mirage

Some of the deans and graduands during the Kabarak university 16th graduation ceremony on December 18, 2020. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

As the clock ticks and the August 8 election approaches, the issue on fake academic degrees lingers, as several aspirants face questions over credibility of their academic papers.

A degree certificate is a requirement, stipulated in the Constitution, for Woman Rep, MP, Senator, governor and presidential candidates.

A year prior to the election, the Kenya National Qualifications Authority prepared for verification of the academic papers of aspirants.

The institution, set up in 2015, was viewed as the one that would streamline academic qualifications at all academic levels in the country, and flag ingenuine academic papers.

It was also to help with seamless transition for students who study in foreign institutions and return to Kenya thereafter.

However, in trying to execute what it thought was its task, KNQA has met roadblocks whose ripple effects have been the delayed war on fake academic papers.

In October 2021, the High Court allowed a petition challenging the powers granted to KNQA, among them verification of academic papers and regulations guiding the institution and developed in 2018.

The petitioner, in his argument, detested that some of the powers taken over by KNQA are vested on the Commission for University Education (CUE).

This means the institutions have overlapping mandate; creating a grey area in who executes what.

Justice Anthony Ndung’u gave the petitioner a go-ahead to seek orders quashing Part III of the Kenya National Qualifications Framework Regulations, 2018.

This part of the regulation guides Kenyan students who study in foreign institutions on how to seek further education or employment once they return to the country.

It also guides the recognition of prior learning, for those who lack a formal education but are skilled.

At the time, the KNQA had hit the ground running with an ambitious plan to weed out fake degree holders.

The institution had begun working with universities to feed data of all qualifications in a system.

But the High Court decision was in January reinforced by Parliament through the Public Investments Committee in the National Assembly that stopped the KNQA from verifying certification of local and foreign academic credentials.

The committee said the KNQA mandate of verifying academic credentials was yet to be approved. The regulations were published in 2019, but never tabled for approval in Parliament, as the law requires.

With the caveat on the KNQA, the CUE started validating the academic papers of candidates eyeing different elective positions in the August elections.

The CUE was established in 2012 to regulate university education in the country.

The ripple effects of both decisions have left a grey area over which institution has the mandate over what in the verification of academic papers.

Further, it elevated to push and pull between the KNQA and the CUE over who has the mandate to verify academic degrees and other qualifications.

KNQA Chief Executive Officer Mr Juma Mukhwana argues that their mandate was “intentionally hijacked by politicians and government agencies”.

“It is sad that people with fake qualifications are teaming up with some of these government institutions to frustrate the work of the KNQA,” said Dr Mukhwana.

He said the CUE could only confirm whether a university is accredited, and whether a candidate’s academic credentials are valid.

“The KNQA, on the other hand, has and is still enriching the database of all qualifications in the country from university to PhD,” said Dr Mukhwana, adding that credentials can be verified from an existing database.

But CUE chairman Mr Chacha Nyaigotti-Chacha said: “This exercise we are undertaking was not focusing on fake degrees, but about recognition. If they also recognise for IEBC, then the law must be defective. But to the best of my knowledge, that is not their responsibility. I don’t think they have the responsibility.”

However, the issue of students and people claiming qualifications they do not deserve is not unique to Kenya.

In 2015 the New York Times reported on a billion-dollar industry consisting of 3,300 “diploma mills”; fake universities that sold certificates for all levels of degrees worldwide.

The digital era has also been pivotal to the rise of online non-existent universities around the world who, at a fee, will mill any qualification from a diploma to PhD.

The BBC, in 2017, reported that an agency set up to investigate the issue in the United Kingdom reported more than 90 bogus institutions.

The institutions, according to a report, set up websites looking like they were licensed universities during the operation. Up to 40 such websites were shut down in 2017.

Prof Stephen Kiama, the University of Nairobi Vice Chancellor in an interview, noted that most universities go to great lengths to integrate sophisticated security measures in order to protect the unstained integrity of their academic documents.

He said the institutions had adopted graduation booklets that give the names of all graduates from the institutions and thus is now easy to verify whether one has an authentic or fake academic paper.

Nevertheless, Prof Kiama says, fraudsters have found ways of developing their unique versions of seals, crests, and holograms, which comprise of the said security features.

Ms Laura Tich, a tech expert and founder of SheHacks_KE, a group of women cyber security professionals, said the fake academic degrees can also be acquired in the dark web.

The dark web, she says, is a soft landing for many, as the identities of the buyer and client remain anonymous. She warned of possible frauds in the quest to secure a fake degree.

“Some people set up scam schemes and target unsuspecting individuals searching for a fake degree service provider,” Ms Tich said.

In the fight against fake academic papers, South Africa is ahead of the curve when it comes to the ability to verify qualifications.

It boasts a fully automated centralised online degree verification system called MiE. This was the first commercial background screening company of its kind worldwide.

The University of Johannesburg has adopted block-chain technology in its system to help counter fake degrees linked to the institution.

The block-chain technology will allow third parties, such as prospective employers, to verify a graduate’s certificate.

The system links higher education institutions to a centralised database where third party queries may be fielded.

The service verifies Grade 12 certificates and checks tertiary qualifications such as diplomas, bachelor degrees, and short course certificates with local and foreign institutions.

The system also checks whether an academic institution is accredited by the relevant governing bodies.

The institution has also incorporated a QR code in qualification certificates issued to graduates to verify its authenticity.