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Diploma Mills and Protecting the Public
By Darren Usher, RSW
As Registered Social Workers, we know how much work, time and effort we put into our education, not to mention the expense! For those of you who read the September 10th, 2017 article on CBC News Business (Marketplace) about fake degrees, I would like to assure you that your College is definitely alert to the many issues involved in documentation authenticity.
The CBC headline read: ‘All of us can be harmed’: Investigation reveals hundreds of Canadians have phoney degrees (By Eric Szeto, Nelisha Vellani)
In their investigations, CBC Marketplace found that “more than 800 Canadians could have purchased a fake degree” from “the world’s largest diploma mill” and stated that “some Canadians could be putting their health and well-being in the hands of nurses, engineers, counsellors and other professionals with phoney credentials”. The BCCSW (and the predecessor organization, the Board of Registration for Social Workers) has been diligent in its development and enforcement of bylaws, policies and procedures to prevent any applicants not meeting the BCCSW’s minimum, yet rigorous, registration requirements from being registered. Below are measures that are currently in place for verifying different types of degrees that applicants submit to the College:
Canadian/USA social work degrees: the primary safeguard for applicants with social work credentials from an institution in Canada or the USA is that they must have obtained their degree from a program approved by the BCCSW Board. These programs have been rigorously assessed and are generally accredited by the Canadian Association for Social Work Education-Association canadienne pour la formation en travail social (CASWE-ACFTS) and the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) in the USA. CASWE-ACFTS has developed the Commission on Accreditation (COA) which applies a process of assessment and evaluation to social work programs that apply for accreditation. The process of accreditation can take several years and must be renewed by re-accreditation every 8 years (by COA review). Applicant’s academic transcripts and relevant documentation must be sent directly to BCCSW from the issuing authority (usually the academic institution) in an institutionally sealed envelope, which increases security.
Non Canadian/USA social work degrees: the BCCSW also receives applications for registration from internationally trained social workers. The process of verifying the authenticity of their credentials is twofold. First, the applicant must apply to have their transcripts assessed by the International Credential Evaluation Service (ICES). Established in 1995, ICES has built a substantial database of international academic institutions and programs. All documentation authority (usually the academic institution), must bear the proper seals, signatures, and/or postal markings and where necessary, certified translations into English or French submitted. ICES then authenticates the documents and evaluates them for Canadian academic equivalency. ICES will then issue a report directly to the BCCSW with a copy of all documentation including transcripts. After receiving the ICES report, a BCCSW evaluation is undertaken to ensure the program content is significantly equivalent to a Canadian social work degree. BCCSW evaluators ensure the physical existence of the academic institution, search online course content, and verify details of the program and the applicant’s participation in the program. Any irregularities and inconsistencies are thoroughly investigated.
Non Social Work Degrees (Related Degrees): the BCCSW Board has designated seven degrees as being sufficiently related to social work to meet the requirements for registration (for more information: http://bccsw.pubweb.dc.thentia.com/?page_id=508). The applicant must show the knowledge, skill and abilities acquired in their education are ‘substantially equivalent’ to a social work degree. This equivalency is determined by assessing their course content against core criteria established by CASWE in their social work program accreditation process. In this application process, academic transcripts and relevant documentation must be sent directly to BCCSW from the issuing authority (usually the academic institution). Furthermore, the BCCSW does not simply accept a degree, as noted above, but rather requires a transcript directly from the institution which contains the institution’s stamped seal. Once received, a BCCSW evaluation of the applicant’s ‘Knowledge Equivalency Portfolio’ is undertaken to ensure the program content is significantly equivalent to a social work degree. BCCSW evaluators ensure the physical existence of the academic institution and search online course content and verify details of the program and the applicant’s participation in the program.
The CBC News article goes on to describe a specific case of a fake PhD degree held by “a counsellor, social worker and psychotherapist who specializes in helping people cope with substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and the trauma of child abuse.” The PhD was bought from a University “affiliated with Axact’s international diploma mill scheme, and is not an accredited post-secondary institution. There is no campus, just a website where customers can trade “life experience” and money for a degree.” Clearly, based on the BCCSW evaluation processes outlined above, such a degree would be quickly flagged.
As Michael Juskey, a Toronto criminal lawyer, states to the CBC: “Uttering a forged document is a criminal offence that can lead to jail time” and the BCCSW would take such a false representation by an applicant extremely seriously, with a full investigation and likely disciplinary action.
Unfortunately, the ‘social worker’ mentioned in the article was found on the register of the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers. The CBC did not claim that this registration was obtained based on false documentation. You can read a response to the CBC report from the Ontario College here: http://www.ocswssw.org/2017/09/18/message-from-the-registrar/. All registered social workers in BC are listed on the online register, searchable through the BCCSW website. Anyone suspecting a social worker of being falsely represented should inform the BCCSW and an investigation will be conducted.
The CBC article concludes by asking “Who’s responsible?” and as Allen Ezell, a former FBI agent and co-author of the book Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas, states: “It’s everyone’s problem, the people have to do their homework when they’re getting ready to sign up with a school. It then goes to the employer when they’re presented with the credentials to check it out.” As a new Director of Professional Practice at the BCCSW, I have been impressed to learn about the processes the College has in place for authenticating and evaluating applicant credentials. I intend to do my part to continue this diligent work and collaborate with the staff and Board to constantly improve College processes.