Fake Degrees, Visa Mills & Identity Fraud: how Jisc are protecting UK graduates, universities, and employers

AUA Annual Conference 2021 Exhibitor Blog

Every year the HE sector comes under threat from fraudsters, cheats and those looking to circumvent the system in order to get a valuable qualification. Whether that’s an increase in bogus institutes, using fake certificates, or individuals falsifying student identities, these threaten the reputation and stability of the HE sector, yet the problem is little understood.

As a membership community, Jisc are here to power and empower institutes with the technology and data needed to succeed. Jisc is committed to tackling these issues in conjunction with the HE sector and government partners to make HE safer for institutions, students and graduate employers alike.

Bringing down bogus institutes

Back in 2015, the government tasked Prospects Hedd to identify and target bogus institutions and perpetrators of degree fraud. Since then, Hedd has identified and investigated 310 potential cases of universities offering fake UK degrees – a rise of 67 since 2019 alone.

Since then, Prospects Hedd have been able to close 85 websites, who were selling degrees from fake UK Universities, in collaboration with the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau and other law enforcement agencies. This is vital to preserving trust and credibility in UK Higher Education.

Tackling degree fraud

Given the nature of these websites, which can close as quickly as they appear, there are many more fraudulent operators than official figures tell us. In fact, it is very likely there are as many, if not more, than the UK institutions that are genuine. With the rise of online learning and virtual campuses, it has never been more difficult for students to distinguish between a genuine university and a bogus institute.

This means verifying the degrees of anyone who comes into your organisation is absolutely crucial, especially if candidates don’t even realise they’ve been duped into paying for an inferior education. You don’t want to be caught out, as was recently the case with Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust!

Be absolutely sure that individuals are who they say they are, and that they have the qualifications to do the job or study they applied for. The cost to your organisation could be far more than just the cost of rehiring.

Prospects Hedd’s free online tool enables users to check whether a UK university or college is a recognised degree-awarding body. Always check the name of the institution on the certificate to see whether you’re accepting a certificate from University of Manchester (genuine) or Manchester University (bogus).

Organisations can also verify degree qualifications or report degree fraud through Prospects Hedd.

Addressing the rise in essay mills

In addition to degree verification services, Jisc believes there is also a need for the government and sector leadership to do more to prevent fraud from impacting the higher education sector. In February, Prospects Hedd provided evidence to support former universities minister Chris Skidmore’s Ten Minute Rule Bill in Parliament to criminalise essay mills.

Prospects Hedd is also involved in the QAA-led Academic Integrity Charter for UK Higher Education. Whether you’re a university or college, Jisc welcome educational leaders to sign up to the charter. Together we can commit to promoting academic integrity and taking action against academic misconduct across the sector.

Hedd also runs an annual Degree Fraud Awareness Week consisting of informational seminars targeting different stakeholders, as well as providing an inclusive roundtable approach to tackling degree fraud with the help of all types of HE workers.

Verifying Student Status

Issues with trust and identity in research and education aren’t exclusive to fraudulent qualifications.

Before they even graduate, students are a key audience for the likes of councils, commercial providers, and institutes themselves – anybody with a vested interest in attracting and retaining new learners. However, traditional engagement techniques that rely on social targeting or acquiring segmented customer lists are invasive, at risk of violating privacy regulations, and typically produce low returns.

What’s more, using a university email address for verification of student status is a risky strategy -particularly as students often retain access to their email, long after ending student status. Estimates currently put fraud rates in the range of 30-35% if defaulting to this methodology.

Jisc are helping the sector to tackle this through UK Access Management Federation’s VerifID Global service, offering instant verification of student status for over 96% of the UK Student population, and all without releasing any personally identifiable information.

The best bit? If you’re a member of the federation, your students can leverage this service free of charge, by default.

Creating trust in HE data

As Jisc look to the future, the potential for an integration with HESA presents exciting opportunities for the future of HE data.  HESA, the Higher Education Statistics Agency, are the experts in UK higher education data, and the designated data body for England.

HESA already collaborate closely with HE providers in each of the four nations, to collect and curate one of the world’s leading HE data sources; providing a rich, open source of HE information for data users.


Jisc’s position means that we’re able to deploy a suite of services to create a more secure HE sector overall. Whether it’s protecting institutions from copyright infringement, ensuring students aren’t competing with cheaters, or helping employers to secure their investment in graduates, Jisc continues to protect the value of HE education.

Only through the continued co-operation and collaboration of Jisc’s membership community can we maintain UK HE’s position as the best in the world. Always ensure your student’s identity and qualifications through VerifID and Hedd and report your concerns to Hedd’s hotline. Together, we can make Higher Education as safe as it can possibly be.

Jisc is proud to sponsor the AUA Annual Conference 2021.

If you need a way to verify data, or the status of staff and students you’re responsible for, Jisc Verification Services can help.

Services include:
Prospects Hedd – offering a simple way for employers, agencies, universities, embassies and councils to check a candidate’s degree qualifications.
VerifID – providing instant verification of an anonymous user’s affiliation within the UK research and education community, using the UK Access Management Federation.

You can find more information about the organisation on the Jisc website.