Sitting here, thinking about it, I don't actually know where my degree certificate is, which is a cause for concern for two reasons. First: that I am somehow absent-minded enough to work towards something for the best part of three years, only to lose it. And secondly, that I've never actually needed it. Every job I've had since graduating – which is admittedly only this one and cleaning toilets in a museum – I've got without ever needing to show anybody the proof of my qualification.
On this evidence, there was very little point in me having studied in the first place. I may as well have just spent a few quid online and bought myself a fake degree. Saved myself the money, the tears, the endless bottles of Iceland's Lambrucini.
Because: people actually do this. Loads of people are buying fake degrees from fake universities. The internet is full of them. Data dropped this week via HEDD (Higher Education Degree Datacheck) revealing that over 30 fake universities have been shut down in the past year. With some posing as actual institutions, others purporting to be online-based open learning programmes, the internet has allowed an excessive proliferation of fake unis, and there are concerns the problem is going to get worse.
But how easy is it? Can I actually get a degree on the internet? How many universities out there are even real? Why am I wearing a child's Darth Vader costume in my graduation photo? Did I even go to university?
To answer some of these questions, I first contacted Jayne Rowley, director of HEDD, to find out more about the bullshit universities out there. "Well, it's been a hidden problem," says Jayne. "It was only really with setting up the HEDD service four to five years ago that there's been any way of building up a national picture of degree fraud."
HEDD is a government-funded operation first set up in 2008, as central verification service for UK degrees – prior to that, if you wanted to check somebody's degree was legit you had to do it through the university themselves, which put a lot of employers off. "Since we went live we've done over 160,000 verification checks," Jayne adds. "Which has obviously thrown up a number of fake certificates, fake websites and queries about bogus universities."
According to Jayne, fake universities come in many forms. "You've got straightforward bogus operations, where there is no university – they're just setting up a website to look like a UK university. Those are really to dupe innocent potential students into thinking they're applying for a UK university, or to make people think they are studying on a distance learning course online, when they're not. Those reel in innocent victims."
Some "fake students", however, are less than innocent. One of the biggest problems fake universities present are people buying fraudulent qualifications in order to deceive employers. "There are the websites that are purely set up to back-up bogus certificates," Jayne explains. "A very common thing is for people with fake certificates to say, 'Oh, you can check my certificate on the university website. Then you go the website – University of Wolverhamton without the 'p' was a popular one – enter the details on the certificate, and a message comes back saying, 'This person is a bonafide graduate.'"
As far as Jayne sees it, this is a real and growing trend. "In March this year, the Risk Advisory Group published a report which screened 500 CVs and found major discrepancies with 70 percent of them," she says, "and of all the discrepancies, 28 percent had issues with educational qualifications. People genuinely don't see lying on their CVs as a criminal offence, but it is."
This reminded me of the websites that did the rounds when I was at sixth form where you could buy "novelty" ID cards that let you squeeze through the doors of nightclubs. Surely getting a degree wouldn't be that easy?
Well yeah, actually. It took me about four seconds to land on Instant Degrees, a website that offers courses ranging from Afrikaans to accounting, and all you have to do is fill in a form. Above is my application for a degree in feminism – a degree I obtained at the tender age of seven.
Jayne describes Instant Degrees as a website just selling fake certificates and "not even bothering to pretend they are a university". Despite this, they are very keen to stress how totally legal everything they offer is. In their words: "This is a valuable free service directed at above averagely intelligent people who understand the value of being able to instantly convert their existing knowledge into a degree, quickly and legally." Which is a nice way of looking at it. It sort of validates your dad's mate Roger who is constantly banging on about how degrees are a waste of time and how he learnt everything he knows from "the University of Life".
Further up the bullshit scale is Canterbury University. Their homepage is above. Now, you might think you've heard of Canterbury University. You haven't; you've heard of Canterbury Christ Church University. Canterbury University is, Jayne tells me, one of the most blatant offenders still online. It even has a page where degree holders can enter the code on the back of their certificate in order to "verify" their degree. But as Jayne points out, it is relatively easy to debunk the university's existence. "Google street view is your friend when tracking down bogus institutions," she tells me. Which makes sense when you look at a street view of Canterbury University's supposed address.
That's right. Ol' Canterbury University. Nestled neatly between "Top Dogz" and "Ph Signs". Where dreams are made.
But if filling out the application forms on a fake uni website seems too taxing, there's an even easier method that's been right under our noses all this time: eBay.
Jayne has put this method to the test herself. "We bought some from a guy who was offering fake certificates for £6.95 with nectar points," she explains. "They say 'this is for novelty purposes', but they're not allowed to publish certificates that have university trademarks on them; they are still in breach of copyright. So we bought some, one was in rocket science. The certificates came and they had holograms, signatures, but usefully the eBay seller had sent them in an envelope with a return name and address on the back, so we handed them over to trading standards. Still got the nectar points though."
University is seeming like an increasingly unrealistic prospect these days, so it's no wonder people are seeking out alternatives, especially now that the grants system in the UK has also been scrapped. Sadly, however, the world of fake universities is as treacherous as real ones. You might think you're signing up for a perfectly legitimate Science of Feminism masters at the University of Bedford, only to find yourself the latest victim in long-line played by the most academic hustlers in the game. Either that, or you're a hustler yourself, hoping to blag your way onto a grad-scheme with a make believe degree you bought on eBay. If that's the case, then beware: the heads at HEDD are onto you, fresher.
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