Eighty-five fake UK university websites have been shut down over the past five years as part of a government crackdown on degree fraud, according to Jisc, the technology and IT agency for British higher education.
Fake degrees are a growing problem as job candidates seek to set themselves apart in a competitive labour market.
Among the fake universities shut was Newcastle Business College, which claimed to take thousands of British students on to its campus every year, yet had no physical premises in the UK and a telephone number that went only to voicemail. An investigation showed it was offering fake MBA and DBA qualifications out of the Middle East.
Another fake institution, the European University of Business (which has no affiliation with the Warsaw and Berlin-based institution of the same name), offered undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications using the ac.uk academic domain name for which educational institutions register through the government.
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The closures are the result of a crackdown against fraudulent websites masquerading as genuine universities, launched by the government in 2015 to safeguard the international reputation of UK universities. The initiative, run by Prospects Hedd degree fraud service for Jisc, has since resulted in 310 institutions being investigated for offering fake degrees.
Chris Rea, who runs Prospects Hedd, said he has observed a rise in qualification fraud in recent years, particularly for diplomas and degree certificates: “More people working online combined with a competitive jobs market, economic downturn and a general feeling of insecurity are making people vulnerable, and fraudsters are taking advantage.”
Rea recommended that employers carefully vet the qualifications of any new employees. “The only way to stop these operators is to remove the demand,” he said.
Some of the websites sold counterfeit degree certificates which they claimed were from genuine universities. A BBC investigation in 2014 found a website selling fake degree certificates from the University of Kent for £500, which were described as for “novelty purposes, or as a replacement for lost diplomas”.
“Given the nature of these websites, which can close as quickly as they appear, there are many more fraudulent operators than our official figures tell us. In fact, it is very likely there are as many, if not more, than the UK institutions that are genuine,” Rea said.
Educational fraud is thought to be on the rise in the UK as a result of the pandemic, with the number of essay mills proliferating to reach 932 in operation. On 10 February, the former universities minister Chris Skidmore introduced a 10-minute rule bill in the Commons seeking to outlaw essay-writing services in the UK, warning that they threaten to “damage academic integrity beyond repair”.