Media LiteracySierra Leone

Preventing the next “Dominion” Fake Certificate Saga; How to identify fake universities offering degrees

The past few weeks have been swamped by the trending topic of fake degrees in Sierra Leone after a so-called Dominion Christian University had a conferment ceremony which was conducted under a mango tree at the backyard of a house. In a video that has gone viral, persons believed to be graduating students were  dressed in academic regalia, receiving laurels  during  what looked like a convocation congregation process and chanting “Yey Dominion Yey.” The video has stunned social media users and has become  a hot topic of discussion. The event which happened on the 26th March 2022 in the western rural district of Waterloo triggered further investigation and whistleblower revelation by  many  people who had previously and unknowingly, acquired fake degrees from fake universities online and offline.

Even though the scene of the congregation quickly became a subject of social media ridicule, it also ignited a more troubling revelation of fake degree holders in top government positions as well as in the civil and public service across the country. The reactions  by citizens and revelations by a   whistleblower named Dr. Idriss Lahai led to the immediate arrest of the Chancellor of the Dominion Christian University  by the Sierra Leone police on charges of  operating illegally and without  accreditation by the country’s Tertiary Education Commission. The “African Graduate University, ”  believed to be  in Uganda, was also discovered to have conferred honorary degrees to top officials in Sierra Leone. This university, like that of Dominion, has also been identified to be part of the fake degree awarding institutions without the necessary accreditation  to operate in Uganda or Sierra Leone.  It is accused of  selling online PhDs to people in Sierra Leone.

There has been pressure from the public, activists and civil society organizations  on the Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate holders of these fake certificates and have them prosecuted, and the commission has been quick with a response. Through its press release, the Commission quoted  the Anti- Corruption Act of 2008, as amended in 2019 Section 128(3), which states that persons “…who would have willfully or knowingly used or submitted what would amount to “fake’ certificate degrees to confer advantage on themselves” constitutes acts of corruption.  The Commission adds that it is yet to be proven that the accused persons used those certificates to gain undue advantages or promotions.

 The red flags and the baits

The emphasis on “willfully” or “knowingly” in the Commission’s press release provokes conversations around the fact that some, if not most of the bearers of these fake credentials, are unsuspecting victims of certificate frauds by these fake degree syndicates that operate both online and offline. While some people knowingly bought substandard and fraudulent certificates, one can argue that others were completely hoodwinked into believing the degrees and certificates and the universities or colleges that conferred degrees on people on them were not legal or genuine. 

DUBAWA, a fact-checking and verification platform that is equally involved in media literacy activities has an ultimate goal of ensuring that  society is informed, and also to arm citizens with the skills to detect fake  media and information when they come across one. This explainer is, therefore, designed to help people identify red flags at these Diploma mills (fake degrees) as they are normally called, as well as safeguard and shield innocent members of the public from falling victims to  this and other related academic scams in the future.

 Business Insider  reported that there are over 300 fake websites that pose as legitimate online universities selling over 200,000 fake online degrees. With the proliferation of falsehood on the internet, it is relevant that people equip themselves with the required skills needed to navigate and combat these scams. Here are the red flags that should be queried:

Time Commitment 

The time promised for a degree is critical in determining the genuineness of a prospective degree. Most people knowingly want to speed up getting the degree/certificate and therefore tend to go for online programs that facilitate such a process. Even though  there are schools that speed up the process of getting a degree , earning a degree still takes time and one should be mindful of that. If any school or online platform makes bogus promises of  getting you a degree  in a few days, weeks or sometimes even months, it is very likely it is a fake enterprise and should be investigated well before attempting to enroll. If you think you are getting a degree certificate without doing any work to earn it, chances are you are dealing with a degree scam enterprise.

Experience bait

Many of these fake degree enterprises trick unsuspecting candidates by referencing their work experience as enough reason or justification for the conferment of a degree. The conferers will insist that your rich work or life experience alone can get you a degree. However, while  accredited schools can give credit to your work experience and sometimes use such experience to  serve as a shortlisting advantage, it is never a legitimate reason to give someone a degree as scammers or fake colleges do.

The case of honorary PhD

For honorary degrees, they are more or less merited degrees that are conferred on people who have contributed immensely to scholarship, art or culture. Any time you are asked to pay for an honorary degree, be rest assured that you are getting scammed. In this article , the writer, Teddy Foday Musa, categorically highlighted the processes or formalities involved in getting a PhD as well as explaining what an honorary PhD is and emphasizing that there should be no cost attached to receiving an honorary degree. “ In essence, an honorary degree is an academic degree for which all the standard requirements have been waived by a university for good reasons. This type of PhD is known as an honorary PhD or “honoris causa,” and it is typically awarded to well-known members of society (Dhondt 2013), without conducting any research or academic formalities.”

There are a couple of things to look for when confirming the authenticity of a degree awarding enterprise or school. 

Firstly, a real degree is conferred from a school that is accredited or legally recognized by the relevant authorities to confer degrees like the Tertiary Education Commission in Sierra Leone.   Dominion Christian University was not granted accreditation rights. An educational institution merely registering with a corporate body or as a non-governmental organization is not eligible to confer academic degrees. Accreditation presupposes that a school has to meet the agency’s acceptable standards after close monitoring before the process of accreditation happens.

Secondly, it has been observed that a lot of the institutions involved in these fraudulent acts, used names that look and sound very much like globally renowned colleges/universities. Some may even succeed to trick their way to have the “edu” suffix added to their website but that is not enough reason to completely trust a school. It is always advised that people do thorough research  and reach out to institutions, as well as accreditation agencies before making enrollment moves or making any payment to such institutions.

Most fake online schools will ask for money to be paid upfront and in full to ensure that you commit resources even before you complete the programme. Universities do not normally require you to pay the entire tuition fee. It is in most cases optional and besides fees to duly accredited institutions are generally paid in installments, per semester or per annum.

Be mindful of “Too good to be true’ admission criteria or offers. Many fake programs will require very little from applicants and some only request for cover letters and resumes without putting any premium on academic credentials. A couple of open universities may have few admission requirements,  nonetheless, it is recommended that you do your research well to know if they are open universities. Open Universities offer degrees with low or no entry requirements and are accredited as  distance-learning programs, and applicants should require that open universities are properly scrutinized about accreditation.

Conclusion

The issue of carrying fake degrees from unaccredited universities or enterprises can be viewed as an unethical enterprise as well as a crime in most places. It can lead to reputational damage.  In a bid to prevent that, it is always recommended that people are cautious  when they want to apply for  online degrees. . Doing thorough background checks, identifying red flags, and following the steps highlighted in this article will shield you from related future scams. It takes a lot to invest in education; therefore, people must ensure that they are getting into right and legitimate investments.

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