Fake Doctors’ Certificates21 May 2018
Several students have recently been expelled due to the provision of fake doctors’ certificates, according to the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) advocacy and legal department.
“This year we have already seen a total of 15 cases of academic misconduct due to fraudulent medical documentation across five different faculties,” explained head of the advocacy and legal department, Phoebe Churches.
“This is equal to the number of similar cases recorded for the entirety of 2016 and suggests that the service will see an unprecedented increase in cases of this nature in 2018,” she continued. Indeed this issue has now proliferated such that University administration has taken particular note of this activity in 2018.
Director of students and equity, Elizabeth Capp, revealed, “The University of Melbourne is concerned about the issue of academic integrity on many levels, and students presenting false documentation to gain academic advantage is one aspect of this.”
“While we noted an increase in the number of cases of fraudulent medical certificates in 2017, these numbers are still extremely small in the context of our entire student population.”
However, there is a clear group of students who are disproportionately and adversely affected by this issue, namely international students. Churches identified one key reason that international students are far more vulnerable to the lure of this fraud.
“The cost of a medical appointment for an international student can be between $70–$100 and online fake certificates can go for as little as $20.”
Combine this with the University’s requirements for special consideration for medical reasons, which state that a student must see a doctor “within four days of the affected assessment.” This often leads to applications being rejected for medical conditions that have resolved without treatment.
“For various legitimate reasons, students may struggle to obtain the required documentation,” Churches said. “So, while we are not saying that any of these factors legitimise the purchase of fraudulent documents—we do suspect that this context creates a market for them.”
The welfare of affected students is of concern to UMSU, and President Desiree Cai called attention to the need to identify the underlying problem.“The increase of fake medical certificates is obviously a concern for UMSU,” Cai said. “Fraud is not good, and it’s a sign of a problem when multiple students feel the need to commit fraud with fake doctors’ certificates when applying for things like special considerations or extensions.”
Students have even been directly targeted through social media platforms such as WeChat, indicating an awareness of wrongdoing on the part of the providers.
“There were a small number of cases where students were advertised to on social media about ‘online doctors’ who were providing invalid or fake medical certificates, and consequently, these students knowingly or unknowingly used these certificates,” Cai explained.
The difficulty for international students is compounded even further by services like Qoctor—permitted by the University—where a student is assessed by a medical professional over Skype, and then provided with a medical certificate. This service and those disallowed share profound similarities, and it is understandable why some students may be caught out.
A similar string of terminations for fraudulent medical documentation occurred four years ago as well. The UMSU advocacy and legal department speculates as to why these incidents seem to be cyclical in nature.
“It was late 2013, and early 2014 when the advocacy service last had cause to note a large number of academic misconduct matters involving students facing allegations that they had presented fraudulent medical documentation to the University,” Churches said. “It has been four years—the average undergraduate lifecycle of a student—after the initial spike. Now we are wondering—has the message finally faded as those students exposed to our message, and word of the harsh penalties for this misconduct, have finished up and moved on?”
The advocacy service’s quarterly report for October–December of 2013 has a section entitled ‘Desperate measures—foolishness, fraud and HPR form forgery’, where this issue is discussed. This document questions the University’s special consideration requirements and speculates that they may have been partially responsible for this issue.
“Without in any way trivialising the students’ responsibility for their own actions, it is hard not to speculate that the extremely high threshold the University sets for acceptable documentary evidence for special consideration may be in part responsible for the surge in this practice,” the document states.
The document suggests that “critical evaluation of whether the [special consideration] threshold is too onerous is warranted.” In the subsequent quarterly report, the department follows up on the issue, noting that students who posted in online forums asking for “advice about how to handle the pressures of study” were “directed to the person offering the fraudulent HPR forms.”
In response to this issue four years ago, the advocacy and legal department produced a series of posters, published warnings on their website and distributed information to clubs about this issue and its associated penalties. UMSU and the University even collaborated to create a series of videos in English, Mandarin and Indonesian about the problem. These are available on YouTube through the ‘Service Commitment—University of Melbourne’ channel.
In the course of our own investigation into the issue, we looked into online discussion about fake medical certificates on Chinese search engine and media platform, Baidu. Through this, it was easy to identify that there were ongoing discussions about how to obtain fraudulent certificates.
For instance, students concerned about the repercussions of being caught are directed to specific clinics which seemed to issue certificates to students who were not actually sick. Another forum warns students against flocking to the same few clinics; it is implied that this would arouse University suspicion. What our research made clear was that this issue may very well be bigger than the statistics of terminated students suggest, with similar issues manifesting in other tertiary institutions as well. The University of Sydney, for instance, also experienced a rise in expulsions for falsifying medical records; whilst fewer than 15 cases were recorded in 2015, the number has since jumped to around 25 a year, in both 2016 and 2017.
So, where to from here? With this year’s spike suggesting the rise of such practices, the University has increased their scrutiny of medical certification. However, University administration is also attempting to aid international students who may be unaware of this trap.
“The University takes a range of actions to ensure authenticity of student documentation, including preventative and educative measures, and has worked with international students over many years to provide advice about unscrupulous operators who offer such services,” Capp said.
“We also maintain a register of medical practitioners and websites of interest in this regard, and have this year implemented more rigorous systematic auditing of medical documentation,” she concluded.
Churches was far more explicit in her message to students who might be considering resorting to this tactic.
“DON’T. Really, seriously—no matter what. Do. Not. Do. It.,” she asserted. “It is a mistake that you will always regret and there are other alternatives. Anyone who feels their studies have been affected by something unexpected and out of their control—whether it is illness, mental health related or another trauma, being the victim of a crime, or any serious disruption to their studies—should contact the advocacy service for advice on how to manage it, and support to engage with the University’s special consideration processes and other available supports.”
Students in need of such support can access it through UMSU advocacy.