Ahmad al-Saadi had a dream. He wanted to obtain a college degree in order to get a better job and improve his family’s living standards. He sold his wife’s jewelry to enable him to enroll at the “Academy of Open and Virtual Education in the UK,” through a “Student Services Office”; one of many of its kind that had mushroomed in Damascus.
It was too late when Ahmad discovered that the so called “Academy” did not exist in reality, and that the degree he received was worthless.
As more citizens fell victim to fraudulent degree scams, the Syrian Minister of Higher Education Ghaith Barakat decided, in August 2007, to cancel the licenses of all five “Student Services Offices” that operated in Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia.
However, the director of one such office argues that after the five licensed offices were closed down, “dozens of non-licensed offices are still active in the black market stealing with total impunity, the effort, money, and future of dozens of Syrian students”,
There are no accurate figures for the number of such fraudulent offices which work without a legal license. “They have established a wide underground market that lures tens of thousands of Syrian students into spending millions of Syrian pounds to purchase fake degrees,” the same director claims.
The Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) cannot directly interfere to close down such centers as such action is the prerogatives of the security services.
Meanwhile, these offices continue to promote and advertise their services in various media, particularly on the Internet.
On Page 21 of the advertising review “Saii al-Sham” (The Postman of Damascus), dated August 30, 2008, a half page advertisement of a Student Services Office offers distance learning courses at the University of Science and Technology in Yemen (USTY). Another quarter-page ad invites Syrian students to sign up for correspondence courses offered by universities in Switzerland, Egypt and Jordan through calling two mobile phone numbers. No fixed phone number, physical address, or email were provided.
Those two announcements represent a small portion of the illegal activities of the so-called “Student Services Offices” that especially peak at the end of each academic year. After sitting for their secondary school diploma exams, students start attempting to gain admittance in a university. Last year, only 35,000 of the 170,000 students were admitted to one of the six state-run universities. Another 7,000 secured admission in one of the eleven private universities in Syria.
A single office facilitates admission to four British and American colleges!
Ahmad al-Saadi was one of those admitted to the “Academy of Open and Virtual Education in the UK” through applying to the “Consultation office for Science and Technology”, located in the basement of a building in Moadhamia area in Damascus. On its website, the office states that it also represents three other colleges: “The Virtual International University in the UK”, “The American College for Management,” and the “Arab British Academy for Higher Education.”
This reporter found out that the office is operating under a commercial license, not under the Student services license. Moreover, students are asked to pay fees in US Dollars or Sterling Pounds straight into the owner’s personal account, and not to the colleges that the office claimed to represent.
After the publication of this report, the authorities
( ordered the closure of the “Consultation office for Science and Technology”, and seized the assets of the owner who was referred to court. He was sentenced to three months in jail after two students sued him. He was also ordered to return the two thousand Sterling Pounds he had received as tuition as well as to pay 50.000 SL ($ 1.000) as compensation for damages they had suffered.
Ahmad al-Saadi , as well as ten other students, said they are still waiting to recover their money after they sued the same person for “fraud, forgery and the use of fake documents,” says a document issued by the Fifth Criminal Court of Damascus.
Despite all this, the office website is still active and is being periodically updated. In August 2008, the office posted online advertisements offering distance learning courses with the four colleges it claims to represent. Moreover, the website still lists the office location as Maadhamia, while a field visit categorically proved it was closed down.
An ex-employee who was in charge of correspondence with students confirmed that once the office was closed, the owners shifted their work to their homes and continue to communicate with potential “students” through the Internet.
The same employee added that he had been supervising approximately a hundred students from Syria and abroad. He mentioned a Palestinian student living in Egypt who had paid $ 1,400 in fees before she heard that the office had been exposed as fraudulent. The office in Damascus refused to provide her with any documents confirming that she had completed several courses through them.
Distance learning programs are not recognized by MoHE
During the last two years, the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) imposed tough criteria for recognizing foreign degrees in higher education, especially in the field of medicine. In an attempt to help students make their choice, it posted a list of 5.000 Arab and international universities it recognized on its website.
But this was not enough to solve the problems suffered by students who joined a distance learning program at a recognized Arab or International university.
The MoHE does not recognize distance learning programs, and requires that the students prove that they were residing in the foreign country where the university certificate was issued, and that they speak that country’s language fluently.
To clarify its position, the MoHE published a warning on its website stating that students should refrain from registering for distance learning; or the so-called “Open Learning System” with The University of Science and Technology in Yemen. The ministry confirmed that there was no office in Damascus licensed to offer such services and that any claims to the contrary are illegal. The ministry stressed that it does not recognize any certificate issued by that University except those who are obtained by students who attended courses on its premises in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.
The formal representative of the USTY in Damascus was surprised by the ministerial decision to close down his office along with other licensed student services centers. He said that his office had been legally operating in Damascus for six years to facilitate the admission of Syrian students to the USTY distance learning program. One hundred and fifty five students had been enrolled through the office prior to the ministerial decision.
“We do not cheat students. We explain to them that after they graduate, their certificate will not be recognized by the Syrian MoHE because it does not recognize distance learning system, but that it can still be used as an acceptable qualification for working in the private sector or outside Syria,” he said.
A similar case was raised by students who enrolled in the distance learning program at the University of Science and Technology in Sudan (USTS) which had a branch in the Lebanese city of Zahleh in the Bekaa Valley, not far from the Syrian border.
“Mr. Minister of Higher Education and Mr. Prime Minister we, students of the USTS, are requesting your help to find a solution to our problem.” This cry for help was published by syria-news.com, a news website, on the behalf of a group of USTS graduates via the al-Anwar office for Student Services in Damascus.
For more than two years, Mohammad Naqshabandi has been trying to acquire recognition for the bachelor degree in Business and Economics that he had obtained from the USTS. Mohammad was admitted to the Lebanese branch of the Sudanese university in the beginning of 2000 after he had read an advertisement of al-Anwar office. Al-Anwar announcements were then published in ad reviews as well as public newspapers and everything seemed great, but “now no one recognizes our certificate,” Mohammad says.
Manaf Allaya, another USTS student, explains that the “office facilitated our admission and arranged for teachers to come to Syria before the exams to help us understand and review the courses we were taking by correspondence. We sat the exams in Zahleh under the supervision of teachers delegated by the university.”
Manaf was registered in 2001 and graduated in 2003. He paid a total of 200.000 SL (about $ 4.000) as tuition and registration fees.
The MoHE refused to recognize the degrees of USTS until students completed 13 courses required for the second and third academic years in the program of open learning at the faculty of Economics in the University of Damascus.
Firas al Saleh accepted the challenge and finished the 13 courses required. He paid 3.000 SL ($ 60) for each course and 1.500 SL ($ 30) for each course he had to re-attend.
“After all that, the Faculty of Economics refused to issue a transcript of records or a certificate of graduation before I secure a letter from the Ministry of Higher Education in Sudan that confirms that I was registered at The University of Science and Technology in Sudan,” Firas said.
Further problems continue to plague dozens of students who had applied to get the required letter from the Sudanese ministry. On 26 July 2006, a letter finally arrived from the Sudanese ministry confirming that four of those students were actually registered at the USTS. Luckily, being one of them, Firas was able to receive equivalence for his certificate after two years and a half of correspondence and paper work!
The al-Anwar office continued to admit Syrian students until July 2006 when the Israeli war on Lebanon forced the USTS to close its branch there. One year later, the Syrian MoHE cancelled the office’s license. The students are now at a loss to find a satisfactory solution, shuttling between the Sudanese university, the Syrian MoHE and the office. A group of them decided to make their voices heard by sending a letter to syria-news.com threatening that they would organize a sit-in in front of the ministry, if their problem were not solved.Arwa University in Yemen: another misfortune!
Dozens of Syrian students faced a similar problem after they were enrolled in the distance learning program at Malika Arwa University in Yemen (MAUY).
Before they registered at MAUY, Mohammad Iyasou and many of his friends insisted on obtaining a copy of an agreement between the MoHE and Yemen that clearly states that “all certificates issued by universities and institutes in Yemen are deemed equivalent to the degrees issued by universities and institutes in Syria.”
However, the Syrian MoHE refused to recognize the degrees obtained by the students. As for the student services office that was representing the Yemeni university in Damascus, it simply closed down. “It just vanished!” Mohammad says, in disbelief.
Mohammad and his friends insist that all their graduation certificates, transcripts, and academic records are duly certified by Arwa University deanship and the Yemeni Ministry of Higher Education. The certificates hold all the necessary stamps of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Yemen, the Syrian embassy in Yemen and the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Many of the students are employees of the public or private sectors who need to have their certificates recognized, a criteria for job promotions.
The Cultural Attache at the Yemeni Embassy in Damascus, Abdel Karim Daer says that the Syrian MoHE is the sole authority in this matter and, therefore, students should follow its rules and regulations.
Dr. Lama Youssef, the director of quality assurance department at the MoHE assured that the Ministry certifies or issues equivalence for the degrees issued by Malika Arwa University if the student fulfills the equivalency conditions which include residing in Yemen during the years of study. “The branch that operates in Syria is not licensed and, therefore, the Ministry does not recognize its degrees,” she explained.
St Clements University students also waiting for a solution
“I am still under shock,” said Ahmad Bella, when he discovered that the law degree he had been studying for over two years to obtain “was not going to be recognized” by the MoHE.
Ahmad paid more than 100.000 SL ($ 2.000) to “Sharqa Office for Academic Services,” and spent two years studying in correspondence with St Clements University, in the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British Colony, close to the Bahamas.
The “Sharqa Office for Academic Services,” registered dozens of Syrian students at St Clements University, provided them with course material, and organized lectures and exams. It was one of the five offices that the MoHE decided to close down amid suspicions of fraudulent activities.
A year ago, the office had been aggressively advertising its services, but its manager now offers guarantees that he is complying with the MoHE decision. “We immediately stopped providing university services after we were notified of the ministry’s decision, but continue to provide other licensed services such as coordinating lectures and organizing students’ exams,” he explains. The office changed its name slightly and had a new license issued.
The office whose name became only “Sharqa”, is no longer representing St Clements University, and therefore has no students enrolled in its distance learning program, he says.
Nonetheless, Mohammad Ghannam insists that he is still taking distance courses with that university through the office. Mohammad does not seem doubtful about the credibility of the degree he is going to obtain, confirming that “it is the office license that was cancelled and not that of the university.”
“My colleagues belong to the elite of the Syrian society, among them are the wives of some senior official,” Mohammad says. For him, St Clements University’s website is enough proof of its credibility.
However, there is a significant difference between the original website of St Clements University in English and its Arabic version. While the original website offers PHD studies in six specializations, the Arabic website that Mohammad refers to, claims that the university offers PHD studies in 44 specializations. As for the annual fees of 50.000 SL ($ 1.000) the “Sharqa Office” demands, they are much lower than the fees for Bachelor studies starting at 1.500 Euro.
The office manager refuses to comment on such differences, saying “our office is closed and we have no longer any contact with the university.”
The MoHE between preventive and drastic measures
“There are no licensed student services offices in Syria,” Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Ghayyath Barakat said in an interview. He warned Syrian students against falling victim to such offices that claim to be representing an Arab or International university in the country.
The minister notified students that the ministry won’t equate any certificate or college degree obtained by those enrolled in a distance or open learning programs at a university which is located outside Syria, or has a branch in the country. He encouraged them to refer to the ministry with their questions and enquiries.
But these warnings may not reach the thousands of students who continue to deal with fraudulent offices. On the other hand, many students may choose to ignore them, and set their sights on obtaining a degree after being rejected by public universities due to low grades or by private colleges due to their inability to pay the high fees.
In Ahmad Al Saadi’s case, these warning statements came too late; he had waived his right to purchase a flat in Qudsaya suburb, and now lives with his family in his parent’s flat. He did so in order to pay the 400.000 SL ($ 8.000) to the student services office over two years and half so that he can obtain a degree that is only useful for hanging on his wall!
This investigation was conducted with the support of ARIJ – the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (www.arij.net) under the supervision of Syrian coach Ali Hassoun.