Diploma mills and the neoliberal substitution of the superficial for the substantial

The New York Times published an editorial today condemning Axact of Pakistan for its diploma mill and noting that Pakistan’s “government, which raided Axact’s offices on Tuesday, had little choice but to act.” The editorial adds a little bit of information, including that in Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas, authors Allen Ezell and John Bear “assert that there are 3,300 unrecognized universities worldwide, many of them selling degrees at all levels to anyone willing to pay the price, and that more than 50,000 Ph.D.s are purchased from diploma mills every year — slightly more than are legitimately earned.” The editorial board goes on to recommend that “Congress, which has paid only glancing attention to this problem, needs to focus on it in a sustained way.”[1] Slate has published an article backing the original New York Times story, illustrating that many of the supposed professors and students at these “universities” are in fact stock photo models.[2]

This is all fine and well as far as it goes, but I want to point to an underlying defect not so much in this coverage, but in our neoliberal society’s thinking about all this. The trouble is that as a neoliberal society, we have decided that the so-called “free” market is the supreme arbiter of nearly all value.[3] And when the degree is the goal, the market will favor those who can supply degrees most efficiently and at the lowest cost. Which is to say, the market will favor fraudulent diploma mills.

Capitalist libertarians argue that consumers can exercise a choice to weed out evil market players and that in this way, such offerings will fail. This assumes first, that all players are equally informed. Clearly such is not the case: “‘Customers think it’s a university, but it’s not,’ said Yasir Jamshaid, a quality control official who left Axact in October. ‘It’s all about the money.’” This failure of information also extends to anyone who mistakenly honors bogus credentials: “In Britain, the police had to re-examine 700 cases that [Gene] Morrison, the falsely credentialed police criminologist and Rochville graduate, had worked on.”[4]

Second, it assumes that human beings reduced to consumers, especially those on the wrong end of widening social inequality, will honor substantial value when it is superficial value that gets the job or gets the promotion: “Many customers of degree operations, hoping to secure a promotion or pad their résumé, are clearly aware that they are buying the educational equivalent of a knockoff Rolex.”[5]

The trouble is that a fake diploma is not like “a knockoff Rolex” wrist watch. A Rolex simply signifies an ability to acquire a relatively expensive watch. A real diploma signifies accomplishment and learning. But in neoliberal society, we equate wealth with merit, so we fail to distinguish between proficiency and an ability to consume, which is what makes Axact a corporation for our age.

  1. [1]New York Times, “A Rising Tide of Bogus Degrees,” May 20, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/20/opinion/a-rising-tide-of-bogus-degrees.html; see also David Benfell, “Education as fakery,” Not Housebroken, May 18, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=7523; Mateen Haider and Shakeel Qarar, “FIA raids Axact offices, takes records and employees into custody,” Dawn, May 20, 2015, http://www.dawn.com/news/1182928/fia-probe-underway-axact-offices-sealed-in-twin-cities
  2. [2]L. V. Anderson and Mike Pesca, “The busy, busy lives of faculty and students in fake degree programs, as told through stock photos,” Slate, May 19, 2015, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2015/05/axact_fake_universities_and_diploma_programs_a_story_in_stock_photos.html; see also Declan Walsh, “Fake Diplomas, Real Cash: Pakistani Company Axact Reaps Millions,” New York Times, May 17, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/18/world/asia/fake-diplomas-real-cash-pakistani-company-axact-reaps-millions-columbiana-barkley.html
  3. [3]Henry A. Giroux, “Neoliberalism’s War on Democracy,” Truthout, April 26, 2014, http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/23306-neoliberalisms-war-on-democracy
  4. [4]Declan Walsh, “Fake Diplomas, Real Cash: Pakistani Company Axact Reaps Millions,” New York Times, May 17, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/18/world/asia/fake-diplomas-real-cash-pakistani-company-axact-reaps-millions-columbiana-barkley.html
  5. [5]Declan Walsh, “Fake Diplomas, Real Cash: Pakistani Company Axact Reaps Millions,” New York Times, May 17, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/18/world/asia/fake-diplomas-real-cash-pakistani-company-axact-reaps-millions-columbiana-barkley.html

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