Foreign students suspected in far-flung fraud

Oliver Kund
, reporter
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Photo: Pm

These past few months have yielded 22 cases of foreign students falsifying assessment decisions by Estonian academic recognition agency (ENIC/NARIC) to use these for enrolling in our universities. The cheats hailed from Western Africa and used services by local representatives. 

Located in Kadriorg, Tallinn, Estonia’s ENIC/NARIC is an agency rarely if ever crossing the news threshold. Daily, the centre is busy assessing foreign diplomas and checking their authenticity.

Of its clients, lion’s share are universities or perspective students who, among other things, order from them a unique expert assessment: the capacity to confirm if an educational document issued in some far corner of the world is genuine or a fake.

As explained by head of the centre Gunnar Vaht: while often the universities are ordering the assessments, the student candidates may do it on their own. Indeed, this is the favoured path advised by rules in many a university.  

So this January the centre encountered the top remarkable academic fraud in its history: 22 instances where foreign students seeking enrolment have attached to their documents falsified ENIC/NARIC assessments. In other words – they falsified documents supposed to confirm to universities that earlier diplomas of students were authentic beyond doubt.

«They have obviously used our earlier assessments possessed by somebody, which have been used as templates for fabricating new assessments,» explained Mr Vaht. The earlier assessments may have belonged to compatriot students who have received positive decisions and are already studying in Estonia. Thus the deception seems to be carefully thought thru and its arrangers must have known the Estonian system.

The investigation still underway, Mr Vaht will not disclose the universities in which the fraud was detected and whether it concerns perspective or attending foreign students. Likewise, it is premature to state who could be punished and how. What is clear however is that the false assessments have been used by youth from Western Africa including Nigeria, among whom Estonia is an increasingly popular academic destination these past years.

Mr Vaht said that Estonian universities are actually doing a thorough monitoring and perform a decent background check in tandem with Police and Border Guard Board (PPA). Add to that the ENIC/NARIC capacity to check authenticity of educational diplomas in closed databases, and the cheats are weeded out pretty well.

«Yearly, about 2,000 diplomas are subjected to us for inspection. Of these, with 10–20 we find they are false,» said Mr Vaht. «Among such as are sent to us by the educational institutions to check, most often the falsified documents come from Western Africa: Nigeria and Cameroon.»

The permanent foreign students check

As explained by PPA foreigners department head Liis Valk, all Estonian universities have run into problems with foreign students from third countries, but the problem is not massive and is limited to single cases.  

The latest student-related fraud-attempt with false document was discovered last year in Tallinn Airport when an individual from Nigeria was caught with lots of false documents. Of these, one was meant for a countryman of his studying here and applying for residence permit. The courier was sent back to Nigeria, and the student’s plans were cut short.

An area where foreign students try to cheat is command of languages, says the police. «Every year brings a couple of cases where an individual having recourse to our consul has been unable to answer the simplest questions in English though he was coming over to acquire an higher education in English and the university has been convinced he speaks the language well enough,» said Ms Valk. At investigations, it has been discovered that another did the test in the candidate’s place.

In such cases, PPA advises that the university check the student’s command of language. Some universities like Tallinn University actually do a mandatory Skype conversation with every student candidate from abroad.

Also, there are some single incidents where a foreign student has misused a residence permit granted for studies. «A residence permit has an attractive side option – to freely roam in Schengen. This being another reason to carefully watch whether the students indeed use it as intended,» said Ms Valk.

A reason for PPA to declare a residence permit null and void or refuse to extend it is inability of a foreign student to comply with the curriculum. Following that, most of foreign students return to homeland, but there are some who despite the annulled residence permit have moved into other states in Schengen area.

Helen Joost of Tallinn University describes one such instance from last year’s fall. An African Master’s student participated in studies till PPA sent negative decision to residence permit application. With that, the student suddenly disappeared from the university. «He had left his residence and the university no longer has any information about his whereabouts,» said Ms Joost. Probably, the student is in some other European country.

University assumes responsibility

Liis Valk said PPA does at times discover while annulling a foreign student’s residence permit that the individual has already obtained legal residence permit elsewhere in Schengen. To avoid student tourism, Estonian law places quite a heavy responsibility of universities. For a foreign student to apply for residence permit, the university issues an invitation and in several aspects of the law will assume responsibility for the student.

«Universities are well aware of assuming a financial obligation,» said Ms Valk. For instance: if a student loses his residence permit, refuses to leave Estonia and needs to be expelled, the costs thereof will afterwards be collected from the university.

Therefore, universities are considering control measures of their own. Jana Tomson, foreign students admissions specialist at Tallinn University, said that Master’s candidates from Nigeria for instance are not allowed to send their documents themselves but these must come from the previous school and carry its stamp.  

«With absolutely each and every candidate who has sent us the document as required, we do a Skype interview and examination committee checks after the passport picture whether it is the right individual.»

Responsible for registers at Tallinn University of Technology, Aime Piht says the arrival and studies of students is under constant monitoring and as status is altered – like academic leave or exmatriculation – the university promptly notifies Police and Border Guard Board.