When a Chinese student presented her with a chocolate box, Judith Bouvard was taken aback. The box contained a degree certificate. “When I challenged him he admitted it was a fake,” says Prof Bouvard, who is director of Grenoble Graduate School of Business.
“It’s so easy now for students to print off fake certificates that we spend a lot of time looking at the paper, ink and signatures on documents we receive,” she says.
According to Prof Bouvard, GGSB and other business schools are spending increasing amounts of time and resources checking the authenticity of applicants’ degree certificates and, in the case of overseas students, their true ability to understand and use English. GGSB recently expelled a Chinese student because he had used a proxy to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language.
Recently, fake degree certificates have become more prevalent as business schools attract more applicants from emerging economies. Bogus Chinese universities offer diplomas for sale online, often using names similar to those of real colleges, illustrated with Photoshopped photographs to advertise their qualifications. Last year China’s ministry of education instituted a regulation aimed at curbing academic corruption by punishing plagiarism, data fabrication and the buying, selling or trading of academic theses as fraudulent behaviour.
However, the scale of China’s education sector makes it difficult for business schools to determine the honest from the dishonest. Naric, a UK agency that provides information on international qualifications, says there has been a steep rise in the number of enquiries about Chinese independent colleges – typically private education providers affiliated to a degree-awarding institution. Since early 2012, a large number of independent colleges have been granted degree-awarding powers but no central list these has yet been published by the Chinese ministry of education.
Programme managers at GGSB are also having to spend more time answering requests from employers, keen to ensure that prospective employees have gained the MBAs they claim they have, says Prof Bouvard. “Employers are asking to see proof of grades, titles of dissertations and feedback sheets,” she says.
After an initial sift of applicants, Harvard Business School’s admissions board interviews all 1,800 prospective students for the 900 places on its MBA. Overseas students are interviewed at a network of HBS regional “hubs” or via Skype in the case of military personnel, for example.
Ashridge too interviews each applicant face-to-face or by Skype, to observe and compare language ability against TOEFL scores.
Iese business school in Spain has introduced an assessment day. “[It] is part of our security process even though the purpose of it is to get to know the individual,” says Itziar de Ros, MBA admissions director. “More than 80 per cent of our students are from abroad so it is taking more time to receive and check the documentation required. We are conscious of a general rise of fraudulent documents in the wider applicant pool.”
The need to authenticate students presents an opportunity for start-ups such as Vericant in Beijing, which aims to help schools verify the abilities of Chinese applicants by meeting applicants in China, filming a 10-minute one-to-one interview with them, then proctoring a 30-minute writing sample, for which questions are randomised to prevent the test being passed on. The information is uploaded to Vericant’s online portal where admissions officers can login and view the videos and writing samples from each of their applicants.
“In many instances, it’s a matter of not being familiar with western admission processes and students hiring a local agent to write the application,” says Chris Boehner, executive director. “But competition means many agencies go so far as to guarantee acceptance to at least one school the student applies to, otherwise the student receives a full refund.”