A scary truth: could 29% of engineers have fraudulently obtained a legal degree?

We all know that degrees can be – and are often – illegally purchased. So what if I tell you that you can fraudulently purchase a legal degree – and no one would be the wiser? How much faith would you have left in the education system and degrees?

It’s 11PM on a Wednesday night and you’re pretty annoyed. The love of your life is meant to come around and you’ve heard nothing. Suddenly – and finally – your phone rings. It’s the number you’re expecting; but not the voice.

And then that unknown voice shatters your world forever... the love of your life, the man who called you his soulmate, is never coming home again.

This is the reality of a young 21-year-old South African woman. She lost her boyfriend tragically when a bridge collapsed suddenly in Johannesburg one fateful Wednesday night. Read more at http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/Bridge-collapse-Victims-soulmate-gets-dreaded-phone-call-20151015

Dig a little further and you’ll uncover that, in the subsequent months, indications point towards fault at the hands of the engineers. Likely culprits in the scenario? Poor decision-making and poor execution.

With what I’ve recently uncovered about the practice of obtaining legal degrees fraudulently, I cannot help but wonder: did the engineers making those decisions have the qualifications and know-how to make them?

Or are we looking at the ever-further reaching consequences of yet another way that people have found to cheat the system - in pursuit of greed?

  1. The incident that led to uncovering the practice of fraudulent degrees
  2. The ramifications of illegal degrees in engineering, science, research and medicine
  3. Why the educational methodology for degrees exists
  4. What is a modern degree worth?

1. The incident that led to uncovering the practice of fraudulent degrees

As someone who never had the chance to study towards a degree, I have firsthand experience of how doors get shut in your face without that little piece of paper. As a result, I’ve had to be innovative when it comes to making my way in the world.

March 2017 was for me, as it was for many, a really horrible month. After a number of setbacks I decided to try my hand at freelance writing, and I applied to an international site that presented themselves as a ghostwriting service.

If you don’t know what ghostwriting means, it’s basically using the writer’s skill to present your knowledge coherently.

It’s a pretty standard practice for people who have to present papers in academia, especially when they have the knowledge on hand, but don’t quite have the writing skill to match it. And these documents do require some writing skill, as they span 50 to 300 pages in many cases.

After a long, drawn-out recruitment, selection and verification process of a couple of weeks, I was quite happy to receive notification that my account was active and I could start on projects.

The shock arrived once I got inside.

As I took a look at the projects, I started getting the sense that I was required to research the information from scratch myself. That was concerning, and so I made an enquiry with the account manager – and got no response. This should have been a red flag, I know.

However I applied for a few projects, got accepted, and then sent off my list of requirements to the clients so that we could meet their rather close deadlines. That’s where the fun started.

Next thing you know, I receive an email from the account manager informing me, and I quote:

“You sent a message to one of our clients asking to provide some bullet points of what has to be in the paper and then you could transform them into writing. Please note that you are required to complete original research and content and, yes, you can ask our customers for assistance but most often they do not know what to write in their papers so they require our assistance. It is your job to complete papers based on instructions and actually provide the content.”

To say I was gobsmacked was the understatement of the year.

I’ve ghostwritten for a number of people over the years, but always from content the student has provided. I’ve never crossed the line of doing the work for them, even in my areas of knowledge, like marketing.

I’ll add knowledge, make suggestions, drive the flow, ensure coherence – but I draw the line at doing your degree for you.

So when I sent enquiries asking if this was even legal, the back-and-forth began. In a nutshell, I refused to do it, because breaking the law, or committing plagiarism and fraud, are just not up my alley at all.

For this I was called unprofessional and emotional… well honey, I’m a little too old to NOT to let my ethics and emotions get in the way of how I do business. And I don’t want the karma or guilt of a bridge collapse on my conscience. I also don’t feel like sitting in jail either. I find these quite emotional issues – don’t you?

They then tried strong-arming me, telling me I am required to finish the pieces I’d started on, even if it is illegal. I said they’re welcome to take me to court, because I’d be curious to see how this would play out... 'Chemory signed up to do ghostwriting for us but now won’t break the law and commit fraud, so she’s in breach of contract.'

That would be entertaining to watch in court; I’m not going to lie.

To get rid of them I had to resort to threatening to report them to the data privacy commissioners in the US and South Africa. This worked. This part is to warn the writers thinking of finding this group – I strongly recommend against it. It’s like joining a gang.

2. The ramifications of illegal degrees in engineering, science, research and medicine

There are legal ramifications to this of course. Pretty intense ones actually, as this practice is both plagiarism and fraud.

I’m also pretty sure there are cross-border data privacy infringements taking place. Fines and prison terms for data privacy infringements are hectic: starting at R10-Million or two years’ imprisonment in SA. I don’t have R10-Million, do you?

On consultation with an attorney in the US, he related the following story to me: a friend of his had one undergraduate paper written by someone else. The punishment? He was suspended from academia for a year, and was almost unable to sit his bar exam at all once he’d finished studying.

In the majority of cases, the full effects of the infringement would fall onto the student.

I’m sure an angry enough person could prove the writer an accessory to crime if they were looking for somebody to blame though... I mean, as a writer, you have to knowingly participate in what you’re doing. The point is that you bring clarity after all.

Sadly people do look for somebody to blame when things go wrong.

For writers though, there are much bigger ethical, moral and societal implications at play here.

For a start, what will blow your mind is the kind of degrees that this being done for – as many as 60% of the available projects are in engineering, sciences, research and medicine.

Topics include ‘The Mathematical Modeling of the HIV and AIDS Virus’ or ‘Hydroelectric Power Solution Design’.

The levels are from undergraduate to Honours and Masters – and that was just in the initial probation area. If you think it isn’t far-reaching, this company has on average 1,300 projects available at any given time for writers.

We’re not talking about a small amount of people engaged in this practice in other words. I saw a turnaround of about 50% of the available projects each day. If you take that as an average, so 650 projects daily, then over a year it accumulates to 237,250 papers.

Let’s say roughly 20% of those are in engineering. This makes 47,450 engineering papers pushed through annually - many at very senior levels.

Across undergrad and graduate degrees in 2014, a total of 162,172 engineers graduated in the US (see https://www.asee.org/papers-and-publications/publications/14_11-47.pdf).

This would mean, just roughly, that as many as 29% of engineers that are out there could be engaged in this practice. Based on this single website alone.

How safe do you feel about buildings and bridges now?

With engineers, many of these people are coming out of varsity with enormous powers of sign off. They are given roles of authority and power because it is believed that they have acquired the knowledge necessary for them to make important calls.

It also doesn’t help that we seem to have a non-stop shortage of qualified people to fill these roles. So often, the employer will make do with whom they can appoint, relying on education as an indicator.

3. Why the educational methodology for degrees exists

Across the span of my career, I’ve made it a point to hire interns wherever I can. I’ve noticed that most of the time, there’s not that much difference in how much you have to train someone who knows nothing, versus someone degreed.

The crux that I eventually realised, is that experience is everything.

You don’t want to hear or recognise this when you’re a youngster, because experience is the one thing you just have to be patient and wait for. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, experience comes with time, patience and age. This is not something our instant gratification society likes.

It also doesn’t matter what you’re learning, the process for learning remains the same. You learn one little aspect here, and one little aspect there, and one day your mind stitches them together and you see a bigger picture. Over time you stitch those pictures together to form an even bigger overview.

Along the path of discovery you makes mistakes, figuring out what will do and what will not do. The point of having a professor guide you through those final graduate level papers is so that they can see that you have this big picture critical thinking in place.

So the professor lets you pick a topic, which is the equivalent to making the initial decision about what will be done for the project.

Then he or she works with you to guide you through the process, steering you in the direction of what you’ve forgotten or overlooked. The aim is to build a model and habit for big picture and critical thinking that you can apply to any future project.

On average you have a year to two years to finish this paper. It’s meant to take that long, because the process is meant to teach you how to think over a longer project span.

So when you write the paper for the student, not only are you ensuring that he or she doesn’t have the knowledge, you’re also ensuring that they don’t know or learn HOW to find the knowledge once they’re in the position of power.

This is what leads to an engineer saying 'not to worry' a few days before a bridge collapses, killing two and injuring twenty. See more at https://mg.co.za/article/2016-02-18-grayston-bridge-who-will-take-the-fall

4. What is a modern degree worth?

With the entire media furor about fake degrees issued by Trump university, and the recent Melania Trump qualification scandal, degrees are big news at the moment.

In South Africa alone, our universities have been pretty much shut down for the last two years with the #FeesMustFall campaign. Here, people are demanding free access to university education – because you can’t get a job without a degree nowadays.

And that’s the crux isn’t it? You can’t get a job, go anywhere or achieve anything if you don’t have a degree.

In fact, you can’t even emigrate without degree-level experience and knowledge in most cases. Doors are slammed shut in your face, salaries are lower and opportunities are limited, if you don’t have the degree.

You can even be the American First Lady – you’ll still be seen as inferior for not having a degree. And all that is needed for that job is to get married, to say ‘I do’.

So it makes sense that people find ways to cheat the system. It also begs the question: what is a modern degree actually worth?

We give people access, jobs, titles and salaries commensurate with their qualifications and education. However this writing group taught me that these degree documents can be written by a layman who spends a few days doing research on the Internet – and maybe reads a few books.

So if I, as a total outsider, can come in and research a Masters degree-level engineering document in the space of a few days, why do we even have universities? What’s the point of spending years studying when we can just go look the stuff up on the Internet?

No degree came down the side of a mountain carved into rock. That was the Commandments.

Every degree is the result of somebody sitting down at a table and declaring a set of standards, structures, protocols and rules. Every degree is made up, which makes them all false at the end of the day.

However we are placing our lives, livelihoods and safety in the hands of people who are meant to have authority in a system we’ve created – and in reality we’re landing up with people too stupid to even put a document outline together.

That has to be done by someone like me – someone WITHOUT a degree, who KNOWS what they’re doing. And I quote:

“Please note that you are required to complete original research and content and, yes, you can ask our customers for assistance but most often they do not know what to write in their papers so they require our assistance. It is your job to complete papers based on instructions and actually provide the content.”

Do you really want a guy who can’t list a few bullet points under headings making decisions about your building structure safety, health, retirement annuity, or the medicine you give your child?

Me neither… and that’s why this matters.

We have to seriously rethink the way we approach education and hiring practices. If as many as 29% of people could have fraudulently obtained legal degrees, then can we safely use education as a factor at all in hiring any more?

And how safe do you feel about crossing bridges now?

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