Fake qualifications are on the rise. How universities can manage the risk

Fake credentials have become a global problem. The National Student Clearinghouse, a US NGO that offers a degree verification service, reports that falsified academic credentials are a serious, prevalent and ever-increasing problem. In 2015 the New York Times reported on a billion-dollar industry consisting of 3 300 “diploma mills”. These were fake universities that sold certificates for all levels of degrees, worldwide.

Linda Ronnie, University of Cape Town and Suki Goodman, University of Cape Town

Buying totally fake academic certificates is only part of the problem. Those who have degrees may falsify their academic transcripts. This is made easier by the availability of sophisticated technology. Higher education is highly sought-after and provides a measure of status and improved job prospects. So some working professionals may not be able to resist the temptation of adding or altering a qualification on their CVs.

Fake credentials are becoming more common in South Africa. In 2018, the country saw a sharp increase in the number of fraudulent qualifications reported to regulatory bodies such as the South African Qualifications Authority. Higher Education Minister Naledi Pandor revealed that the number of reported cases spiked from just 37 in 2011/12 to 982 in the 2017/18 financial year.

This only represents the number of fake credentials reported. The real number may be much higher. This poses a serious problem for universities and employers. It undermines their legitimacy and reputation and robs honest candidates of opportunities for further education or employment.

Fortunately, there are steps that universities and employers can take to protect themselves. These include the use of verification systems, reference checking and competency-based interviews.


For universities, fake qualifications pose a reputational risk – within other academic institutions and in the workplace. If postgraduate students manage to gain entry on a falsified transcript, their performance will be below standard. Future applicants from that university may be disadvantaged by association.

This also poses a risk to university selection criteria data and policy, as it damages the validity of using prior academic records as a predictor of success.