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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Fall in Education Standards and the Fake Degree Saga in Sierra Leone

By Sulaiman Stom koroma

The Education system in Sierra Leone has not only been a challenge but a very big challenge. In the 60s, Sierra Leone was known to be the Athens of West Africa because of the quality of education the country provided to other countries in the sub-region. Sadly, the ravaging Civil War that lasted for about a decade disadvantaged the education system in the process. The war destroyed over 1,270 primary schools and pushed about 67 percent of children out of school. Years later, the country continues to face considerable difficulties. About 40 percent of primary school teachers are untrained and for many in the provinces, they are just not qualified. Fewer or no textbooks in schools coupled with an unconducive learning environment and a poor attendance rate characterised the country’s education system between 2008 and 2012.

Meanwhile, the poor standards of education have fallen, so far exams malpractices have married students taking external exams, and year after year students are caught collaborating with teachers, and in some cases school authorities and exams officers who provide answers to the exams questions, some will even take their exams at home through the exams fraud syndicate.

Section 128(3) of the Anti-Corruption (Amendment) Act of 2019 strongly prohibits examination malpractices of any kind; which penalty, upon conviction, is a fine of not less than Fifty (50) Million Leones or imprisonment of not less than five years, or both such fine and imprisonment, but even with this, exams malpractice continues unabated, forcing the president, Julius Maada Bio to declare tougher measures to put an end to this menace.

“Examination malpractice destroys the soul of our education system and we must all support the current efforts by the Anti-Corruption Commission to pursue all those involved in examination malpractice. However, those efforts by the ACC must be within the law, adhere to due process, and respect human rights. As a government, we have engaged in heightened and robust monitoring of all public examinations which has led to the uncovering of the huge scale of examination malpractice. Therefore, as immediate steps to address examination malpractice, I wish to announce the following: First, all those caught or suspected of examination malpractice should be prosecuted without delay or exemption; second, any teacher or school head caught and prosecuted should be terminated from service and third, all centers suspected of examination malpractice should have their results canceled”.

Abubakarr Turay is the Deputy Director of Public Education and Outreach at the Anti-Corruption Commission. He agrees that exam malpractice poses a threat to the quality of education at the secondary school level which has also led to poor production at higher institutions.

“When students engage in exam malpractice, it kills their appetite to study and be hardworking, those who can’t make good grades will prefer to enroll in sub-standard institutions which are either fake or not registered,” he said.

The rippling effects on poor performance in external exams have resulted in the purchasing of fake degrees or students attending unaccredited institutions in Sierra Leone and other parts of the world. It will take a special event for the process of exposing fake degrees to begin.

A few days to the country’s 61 independence anniversary, what turned out to be the biggest education fraud and fake degree certification was brought to the limelight. The country was horrified by video footage of a graduation ceremony that was held under a mango tree in the Western Rural District of Freetown.

“Dr. Septimus, by the power vested upon me according to section C subsection 2 of Dominion Christian University Worldwide constitution as the founder, chancellor and the international executive director, I hereby affix this medal on you as an Honorary Dr. from today henceforth.” Those were the words of Professor Ezekiel Bangura conferring doctorate degrees on candidates. The said university has been offering Ph.D. for two years now, even though the Tertiary Education Commission says their operation is illegal.

“They are not registered with us, they are not accredited, they are not legal and they do not have the right to award degrees. We have issued two press releases to that effect,” says Professor Alghali, head of the TEC.

But this statement by Professor Alghali was challenged by the founder and executive direction of Dominion University Worldwide during his graduation speech. “Ya dominion ya, ya dominion ya, d-o-m-i-n-i-o-n dominion ya, I talking to you, I am the founder, the chancellor, and the international director of Christian University DCU Worldwide. Dominion Christian University is legal in Sierra Leone, the case is that we are nationally registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission in Sierra Leone …We are running both the business and academic part of the business”. He said. “Corporate Affairs Commission is mandated to register businesses, TEC and NCTVA are there to register academic institutions. If you are not registered with these two, you can’t start a college”. Professor Alghali.

Gradually it is becoming clear that Dominion University might have either missed the process of registering as a college or university to that of a business. But not entirely, as the TEC agreed that dominion started a process of registration that they did not end and even if the process was completed they still don’t have the right to confer Ph.D. degrees or any other academic degrees.

“Last year they awarded Ph.D. degrees, it came to our notice and we immediately invited them and told them that they can’t operate as a university, but they can apply for a category ‘C’ status, we advise them to purchase the form, which they did for 5,000,000 and returned a year later seeking for evaluation, the form was submitted in January of this year and we have to conduct an evaluation which we haven’t even started. So they are not registered with us nor do they have the right to operate”. Said the head of TEC.

Thinking that without a full registration process they can operate as a university, Dominion went ahead to hold graduation for Ph.D. holders, while the TEC had called the police reporting the same. On hearing this, Dominion members left the hall where they had initially arranged for the ceremony and held it at a new venue (under a mango tree). Unfortunately, they were apprehended by the police. “We have the professor, Ezekiel, and another who claim to be the Vice-Principal. we have them in our custody and we are still looking into the issue”. Said Brima Kamara, spokesman of the Sierra Leone Police.

As the scam unraveled, it became clear that not only Dominion University is running fake degree programs but other institutions like the African Graduate University, and Commonwealth University are also doing the same. Thanks to Dr. Idriss Lahia who has waged a war on exposing individuals who have acquired fake degrees from fake and unregistered universities. “They are not a genuine university and it is a scheme that has been operating for a very long time in our country, and it is impacting negatively on our economy”. He said.

Soon, the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education met with education stakeholders and it was resolved that all degrees acquired from those institutions should not be accepted. “All degrees awarded by Dominion Christian University, African Graduate University, and all other unknown but unaccredited by the Tertiary Education Commission in Sierra Leone are considered null and void. It should not be considered for employment”. Said Professor Alpha Wurie Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education.

Head of the civil service John Sumiala said that anybody found using government money to acquire these degrees that are regarded as fake, the person should return the money to the government. “Those who may have misappropriated government money may have to return them, these are rules we just need to apply, we are not reinventing the wheel. So those who have used government money should go through the process to refund”. He said.

Meanwhile, some institutions in the country have asked all their staff to present or steep aside should they know they are using or have used certificates from those fake institutions. Names of prominent individuals were listed to have attended those fake institutions and soon some took to the media to clarify which institution they attended or the degrees they acquired.

Since Dominion University was the first to be blacklisted, it was quick for Honorable Paran Tarawalie who is the clerk of parliament to disassociate himself from it and clearly state that he attended the African Graduate University. “I am not aware of such a college, I am a Ph.D. holder from the African Graduate University in Uganda, and the leader of government business is also a graduate from the Africa Graduate University.” He said. Unfortunately, this same university he claimed to have graduated from, has been proven to be fake as both the co-founders and another senior person is in police custody.

According to Dr. Lahai, the Africa Graduate University started issuing fake degrees in 2014 after it started operations in 2012 and has awarded fake degrees to over 1000 Sierra Leoneans. Professor Mohamed Yamba Bangura of the Africa Graduate University says his University is legal. “I will start by giving evidence number one to Dr. Lahai and the rest of the world that AGU is registered on the 20th day of June 2012 with the Uganda government.” He said. Musa S. Kamara is a journalist working for a local radio station in Sierra Leone through his contacts in Uganda he spoke to the Public Relations and Corporate Affairs Officer at the National Council of Higher Education in Uganda Saul Waigolo, as their office is in charge of registering all higher learning institutions in Uganda. “As the National Council for Higher Education, we do not have any university in the above names, therefore its operation in Uganda is not known by the National Council for Higher Education”. He said.

At this point, it is apparent that all those universities are either not legally registered in Sierra Leone or any part of the world, nor has the degrees they have earned useful or acceptable in sierra Leone. This has resulted in some graduates of those universities hiding in shame, while others explain their ordeals with those fake Institutions, Mustapha is one of them. “I took that up with the University that our qualifications are not accepted by employing authorities, it’s very disappointing and embarrassing to the whole situation.” He said.
The issue of fake degrees is not unique to Sierra Leone but in some other African countries that have also experienced fraud within their education sector. According to a report in 2015, South African authorities shut down 42 fake higher learning institutions that were offering fake and unaccredited programs, including some, supposedly US-based universities offering degrees in 15 days. Similarly, Research by Garwe (2015) assessing academic fraud claims in Zimbabwe revealed that there was indeed an increase in credential fraud involving both academic and professional awards and recognitions.

In January 2022, Professor Abubakar Rasheed Adamu, the executive secretary of the NUC, disclosed that the commission has found some fake institutions of higher learning in some African countries that award Ph.D. degrees to Nigerian students in less than one year of the program. On 28 July 2016, the over 50-page report together with summary presentation slides and a four-page policy brief. The report captures the use of dubious academic credentials from non-existent academic institutions and unaccredited universities in Ghana. The use of fake academic degrees and award has infiltrated the government, parliament, the academy, and just any other institution in Ghana. Capitol Hill, Monrovia – The House of Representatives and the National Commission on Higher Education have launched two separate investigations into the alleged existence of a fake University, the Gamaliel Christian International University in Bahn City, Nimba County. The institution is alleged to be offering a Bachelor’s degree within 12 weeks and a master’s degree within 16 weeks of studies.

Dr. Jalloh is a Ph.D. holder and lecturer at Fourah Bay College, he spoke of how the situation will impact those who have got their degrees from credible institutions. “The situation is bad and it is a disrepute to society and to people who are studying very hard, and those who are working very hard for society to recognize them and give them honorary degrees”.

As it is, the country needs a massive rebranding if it wants academic consideration and recognition in Africa and other parts of the world. The courage of Dr. Lahai to expose these individuals and institutions giving and receiving fake degrees is a blessing not in disguise but in realitActions by the government and other private institutions to cancel and refuse certificates from those institutions have also plaid a role to sanitize the situation. This may be the start of a long journey, whether it will achieve its goals or stop halfway, at least this thousand-mile has started with a step.

The issue of fraud institutions in Sierra Leone is not new. By the end of the brutal civil war in 2002, several fake colleges and universities, including St. Clement University (eventually closed by the government) emerged.

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