Menace of fake degrees

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

LAST week’s judgment by the Sindh High Court on an MPA’s degree verification issue was not the first of its kind. Justice Mushir Alam dismissed the petition of Malik Imran Khan who had questioned the action of the Sindh anti-corruption department and the University of Karachi for holding an enquiry into the authenticity of his B.Com degree.

This gentleman who was elected on the PML-N ticket to the NWFP assembly in October 2002, later found his election challenged by his rivals on the ground that his degree was “bogus”.

The University of Karachi has confirmed that he had not cleared two papers in his bachelor’s examination in 1994 and therefore he did not qualify for a degree. What is at stake is not the degree but the assembly seat which depends on his having a valid degree.

A number of legislators — at least one MNA and two MPAs — have already been disqualified on grounds of having fake degrees. Other cases are believed to be before the courts. This is not a new problem for quite a few of our universities have been famous for being involved in the paper chase. True, the university may not be officially involved in the game of doling out degrees for the asking. But as is well known there are cells operating on their premises with the connivance of some corrupt members of their staff which issue counterfeit degrees on payment of a heavy sum.

This old problem has suddenly assumed a new and grave dimension because of the Musharraf government’s decision to make graduation one of the requisite conditions for contesting the October 2002 elections. That generated an extraordinary demand for ready-made degrees. Way back in December 2003, Dr Farooq Sattar, a Muttahida Qaumi Movement MNA, had declared at a public forum that the assemblies were full of people with fake degrees. He had called the members of parliament with dubious degrees “political quacks”.

Less than 15 months later one of his own party members, who is a minister of state for religious affairs and conducts a popular television programme to indoctrinate the ordinary folks, was accused of having obtained fraudulent master’s and PhD degrees. These allegations generated a lot of hot air and evoked a weak denial. But the concerned member’s seat was not challenged because his graduation was not in question. The only positive aspect of this bizarre phenomenon is that the political interest it has generated has created watchdogs and monitors — those who lost the election — who are willing to challenge and expose the false degrees of their rivals. That would explain why these cases are being unearthed under the glare of publicity.

But politicians are not the only ones who have been chasing fake degrees. Others in public life who need a degree to pursue their vocation or for promotions are allegedly seeking the easier way out. In fact a heated debate on the issue has been taking place after Qazi Isa Daudpota, an academic, wrote about the nature of the institutions and the doctorate degree conferred by them on high dignitaries of the academia. Although the chairman of the higher education commission, Dr Attaur Rahman, has declared the charges against the vice chancellor of the Quaid-i-Azam University as baseless, his explanation has been challenged and many questions still remain unanswered.

The fact is that given the high level of corruption that prevails in some of our universities, one knows that obtaining a fake degree from these supposedly sanctified institutions of higher learning is not an impossible task. The credibility of the universities has already sunk low. We now know that many universities abroad do not accept the degrees of Pakistani universities at their face value. They revert to local institutions for official verification of degrees when a candidate applies for admission, even though this is a time consuming process.

This corruption combined with the appalling standards — Dr Attaur Rahman himself conceded that many of these universities are at best glorified colleges — has undermined Pakistan’s higher education system. Even when the degrees are genuine, they carry little weight because the standards are so low that the students pass with the minimum of effort. Hence even in Pakistan, many institutions are not admitting students solely on the basis of their exam results but prefer to conduct their own admission tests. Even prospective employers hold written tests and put the applicant through a rigorous interview before making a job offer. Degrees now mean little. They are only used for screening out people and stemming the flood of applicants.

The question has been frequently raised in pertinent quarters: whose responsibility is it to investigate the authenticity of the degrees issued by a university? Can any one challenge a degree? What should be the higher education commission’s role in cleaning up the prevailing mess?

It is important that the HEC and the universities create a mechanism for checking the authenticity of degrees. Obviously every university will have to create an independent cell for this purpose. In order to ensure that the investigations are impartial and fair, some outside observers should be associated with it. As for the HEC, it may not be equipped to actually carry out the probe, but it should be empowered to order a university to look into a case. When should a case be investigated? Whenever charges are brought against a person who holds a public position and his appointment/promotion is dependent on the degree he holds. There should be absolutely no question of the HEC refusing to look into a charge of a false degree.

This may have to be spelled out clearly so that the HEC is not hauled to the court every time it investigates the authenticity of a degree. Interestingly, in the afore-mentioned case before the Sindh High Court, the petitioner didn’t challenge the finding of the university but was upset by the fact that the anti-corruption department had decided to investigate his degree. It gives the impression that it is the right of a person to obtain a fake degree!

Another issue — with a slightly different nuance — that needs some elucidation and must be addressed immediately is the acquisition of degrees from dubious institutions — many of them on-line ones. Any one with a computer and Internet would be familiar with the spam e-mails one receives every day offering a degree on line. “No classes, no study, no exams” the offer reads. It could be quite tempting to those who are not interested in books and studies.

In this globalized world of ours all the names of the universities, which crop up from time to time, are not familiar to people here. Hence it should be mandatory for a person to get such degrees issued by unheard institutions authenticated. This will have to be the responsibility of the higher education commission.

This is not a matter to be taken lightly. One hopes that it will be addressed in earnest and without much delay.