Fake academic credentials do not differ much from fake hair or bosoms. Essentially, they are manifestations of our attempt to project an enhanced, yet false, image of ourselves.
The allegations against Axact, a self-professed leading IT firm, of running a global racket of diploma mills has re-opened the debate about fake academic credentials. In a recent expose, The New York Times offered a detailed account of a global network of websites, allegedly operated by Axact, of dubious universities that sold academic credentials. The buyers, presumably, would like to use fake credentials for economic (employment and promotion) and social (better wedding prospects) gains.
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The important distinction to realise is that the society does not treat all fake assets the same.
For instance, using fake academic credentials may disqualify one from a public office, yet using fake-transplanted hair may improve one’s odds for the highest public office. Similarly, surgically enhanced physical endowments have been known to promote or salvage struggling careers of performing artists.
The real question to ponder is why we adore some fake assets while detest others.
Fake academic credentials are a serious challenge in Pakistan. Numerous legislators have been disqualified for filing fake credentials. A former Balochistan chief minister, when alerted to the issue, brazenly remarked that fake or otherwise, a degree was simply a degree!
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Degrees of fakeness
The worst case of fake degrees involves forgery. Using a forged document to portray false academic credentials from a reputed institution you never attended is the worst kind of academic deceit, not to mention a criminal offense.
Then, there are other fake credentials whose use is certainly immoral, but does not necessarily constitute a crime.
Diploma mills essentially are dubious unaccredited academic institutions that issue academic credentials for a fee. For instance, some so-called universities will readily grant you a doctorate in lieu of your illustrious career for a hefty sum without any real academic work.
A TV celebrity and former federal minister in Pakistan have proudly displaced their diploma mill doctorates with great pride.
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While most consumers of such fake credentials are knowledgeable of the dubious nature of the institutions and their offerings of unrecognised credentials, yet, some naïve individuals are duped by these institutions into believing in the veracity of the credentials. Again, selling credentials as authentic to those who may have thought otherwise is fraudulent.
Paying for unearned credentials is not necessarily a crime. In fact, paying a lot of money for unearned credentials is sometimes promoted by even renowned academic institutions.
A donation of several million dollars to a university most often qualifies one for consideration for a doctorate honris causa (honorary doctorate). Universities waive the degree requirements, such as matriculation, residency, passing of exams and the like for the recipients of honorary doctorates who have either pledged, or have already donated, millions to the university.
Honorary doctorates are usually awarded to distinguished individuals for their commitment and devotion to research and learning or in recognition of one’s pursuits for a better and more equitable world. Distinguished researchers, authors, human rights activists, and great thinkers have been the recipient of honorary doctorates.
If you cannot be all that but may be able to spare a few million dollars, you can join the league of global leaders and thinkers like Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Noam Chomsky.
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Outside of academia, fake credentials and appearances are multibillion-dollar businesses.
Consider the makeup industry or high fashion for instance. Fake eyelashes, hair extensions, foundation creams and high-heel shoes are meant to make us look perkier and taller than we really are. Fake appearances, yet we willing spend billions to present a false image of ourselves.
Our unlimited desire to look pretty on paper and in the flesh has allowed the diploma mills, makeup manufacturers, and plastic surgeons to make billions.
If we were to be content with what we really are and are willing to work hard to earn the distinctions we desire, such rackets would never last.