Reflections

The Cases of Academic Fraud Reflect Decay of Values

By Nick Twinamatsiko, Uganda:

Two South African ambassadors have lately been in the headlines over academic fraud. Last week, it was reported that the ambassador to Japan, Mohau Pheko, doesn't have a doctorate from La Salle University as she claims on her CV. La Salle university was, until 1996, a diploma mill – a fraudulent higher education organization selling degrees online without regard to academic achievement. In 1996, it was shut down following a raid by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and its owner was jailed. Mohau Pheko claimed that she got a doctorate from the institution in 2000, four years after the closure!

Before the dust over Mohau Pheko's dishonesty could settle down, it was alleged that the new ambassador to Washington, DC, Mninwa Mahlangu, received his distance-learning degree from an unaccredited institution.

Four years ago, German politician Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, then a popular defense Minister and widely viewed as a potential successor to Angela Merkel, was forced to step down after it emerged that he had copied large parts of his 2006 university doctorate thesis. According to the Independent (UK) newspaper, Mr Guttenberg stepped down after an unprecedented 50,000 German academics and their supporters signed an open letter to Ms Merkel protesting about his plagiarism. It remains to be seen whether the South African academics and members of the public will bring equal pressure to bear on President Jacob Zuma and Ambassador Mohau Pheko.

Angela Merkel tried to defend her beleaguered minister by pointing out that his position, being political rather than academic, didn't necessitate a PhD, but the protestors would have none of that and clung to the stance that the plagiarism made a “mockery” of the country’s long-established reputation for academic and scientific integrity. President Zuma may adopt Angela Merkel's argument in the defense of his struggling appointees since a PhD or indeed any degree is not a requirement for the ambassadorial position, but it's the German protestors we should heed: it's not about the academic requirements for the job; it's about values and reputation. What are South Africa's national values – values that the citizenry identify with and want to project to the rest of the world? Are those values represented by an ambassador who has misrepresented herself on a curriculum vitae?

The fact that the ambassador's job doesn't require the PhD she smuggled into her CV should deepen, rather than lessen, our concerns. If a woman shoplifts a kilo of rice because her family is on the verge of starvation, we can say she has been driven to the criminal act by necessity. But if she steals it even when she doesn't need to, then we have to fear that her vice is deep-set and complex, and is probably the result of long experience in the same direction.

La Salle University sold its degrees online, and the publicity given to the Mohau Pheko dishonesty, which has sucked in online diploma mills, will probably deepen the suspicion with which online educational programmes and their qualifications are generally viewed. But there are some genuine programmes administered online. And academic fraud isn't limited to the cyber world. In my city, there are streets that have gained notoriety as places where you can get a degree certificate of any university in any discipline printed for you within minutes. Besides, there is a growing sense that, even from accredited universities, you can get a degree without making due effort. Accreditation agencies, the police and courts have for the last two years been trying to get to the bottom of the case of the Mombasa governor, who appears to have got a degree from one of our private universities in shady circumstances. His case made headlines and attracted the attention of state agencies because he happens to be a governor, with prying political rivals. But there could be thousands of other cases that no one has taken note of. The auditor general recently raised the red flag over one of our universities, saying only 21 out of the 91 programmes offered by the institution are duly accredited. And the oldest and most prestigious university recently revealed that one of the dons gave students marks without marking their scripts, and followed that with the revelation that 900 of January 2015 graduates had not yet satisfied the minimum requirements for graduation.

The focus, therefore, should not be on whether programmes are administered online or in physical structures, but on the decay of values that threatens all scholarship. South Africa needs to take Germany's example by clearly showing that Mohau Pheko represents this decadence and not the values and aspirations of the nation.

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