Damascus University recently issued its first digitally enhanced diplomas, part of an initiative to combat the use of forged certificates by students wanting to claim they graduated from the country’s oldest institution of higher education.
Reports have surfaced of diploma-forging rackets in Turkey and in Persian Gulf countries, as Syrian refugees who have fled their country’s brutal war seek to boost their qualifications in order to gain access to educational or work opportunities, either in the region or beyond.
“Some people believe that holding a university degree improves their chances of getting refugee asylum in Europe,” said Nour Murad, 29, a Syrian journalism master’s student at Marmara University in Istanbul.
Accurate statistics about the phenomenon are not available. But Damascus University provost, Abbas Sandouk, recently told the Syrian newspaper Al Watan that he discovered a batch of 70 fake certificates in 2014 that were clearly the tip of an iceberg of fake credentials circulating among Syrian emigrants. Efforts to fix the problem started soon afterward.
Last year, Damascus University received 800 requests to confirm graduations, according to administrators. In 2011, before the war, that number was 550. Even with the increase, last year’s tally seems low.
“Most of the Syrians who arrived in Europe last year probably haven’t started studying or working, hence the numbers have not increased dramatically yet,” said Reem Nader, director of information protection at Damascus University.
The new initiative at Damascus University includes an online database of bar codes that will be assigned to diplomas granted since 2016. The diplomas will also feature laser-3D security stickers imported from Malaysia. And transcripts will be printed on high-quality paper that is more difficult to forge.
Students who graduated after the spring term that ended April 17 received the new diplomas.
“Through this effort, we will save the reputation and position of Damascus University as a respected academic institution, and save time, expense and efforts for new graduates,” said Eyad Kaddour, head of the training and rehabilitation department at the university.
The new diplomas will also clearly spell out students’ names as they appear on their passports, so that foreign institutions can quickly validate a student’s identity without needing to contact the university. “It used to take Damascus University around two months to check the validity of one graduate,” said Kaddour.
A team of administrators has been feeding student records into the university’s database for the last year and a half.
Maria Al Rayyes, 25, is one of the 90 team members working on the project. She’s been scanning and inputting data at a rate of around 85 student files a day. Around 10,200 students graduate from Damascus University annually.
“This was a lot of work, especially for faculties where students take many years to graduate, such as law,” Al Rayyes said.
Alumni will still hold the old diplomas printed on regular paper and without the digital elements, making them forgeable, of course. But replacement diplomas will have the traceable imprint, said Kadour. University officials are also requiring alumni to obtain a police report stating that their diploma has been lost, or to produce a tattered copy of their old diploma if they want a replacement. Newly-issued alumni transcripts are also printed on the secure paper.
A lack of verifiable, official credentials is a widespread problem for Syrian refugee students, who in many cases left their country suddenly and without any documents. The appearance of fake diplomas in the educational system only makes their situation more difficult, casting suspicion on all refugee students, even those who legitimately earned their degrees.
Refugees and others sometimes pay as little as $100 for a scanned copy of a diploma, said Murad, adding that it’s easy to come by forged Syrian diplomas in Istanbul. But they can also pay as much as $2,000 to pay corrupt Damascus University employees to obtain an ostensibly legitimate diploma that requires administrators to illegally fabricate an academic record for the would-be graduate, she added.
Syrian students might use the forged diplomas to enroll in a Turkish graduate school program that provides health insurance, she said.
In Germany, where the number of Syrian university applicants has increased significantly over the past two years as the European refugee crisis has continued, admissions officers have discovered forged diplomas, said Martin Knechtges, an assistant to the board of directors at uni-assist, a service that helps international students apply to schools in Germany.
But the service and European universities have learned to spot forgeries and consult experts or double-check other databases if they’re in doubt, he said. Knechtges noted that a lack of language skills, rather than the lack of proof of graduation, is most often the reason that a Syrian student’s application is rejected.
Schools also depend on standardized tests to measure applicants’ abilities, said Aziza Osman, a board member of Jusoor, a Syrian nongovernmental organization that assists Syrian students seeking to study abroad. “They need a recognized degree,” she said.
Recruiting interviews is another way schools check students’ authenticity. More than 200 Syrians out of 5,000 applicants received scholarships from the German Academic Exchange Service, after around 500 interested students sat for interviews last year, said Christian Hülshörster, an official at the German service.
Officials discovered that seven out of the 500 interviewees had submitted fake identity papers, including passports, said Hülshörster. They didn’t find any fake diplomas, but they still made sure to vet everyone closely.
“We had university professors, along with experienced staff, to examine the knowledge-base of candidates and whether they had the educational background their documents claimed,” Hülshörster said.