The executive education boom: a chance to reskill a population or a slippery slope to increased fraud?

While this greater accessibility to online education is a positive, it also presents more security risks, leaving more space for scammers and fraudsters to go undetected

The pandemic has seen a surge in the need for digitisation and the upskilling of key staff, leading to a rapid increase in professionals applying for online MBAs and other executive education courses. While the greater accessibility to online education is a positive, there are also increased security risks, as there is now more opportunity for scammers and fraudsters to go undetected.

Executive education refers to management programmes designed to help professionals adapt to changes driven by economic uncertainty and advances in technology. By completing these courses, participants can demonstrate their commitment to learning, acquiring new skills and building leadership qualities, all of which are highly sought-after by companies seeking to inject new talent and expertise into their business.

Despite the challenges faced by executive education since March last year, the sector has held firm and even showed signs of growth. This is principally down to the shift in working practices during lockdown, the part-time nature of courses, and the opportunity to consider reskilling or a change in career direction.

Specialised programmes enable executives to develop new knowledge, skills and attitudes to apply to their organisation’s services or set themselves apart when applying for new roles. Since COVID-19, and like many other sectors, executive education programmes have had to pivot and rethink their course delivery. By harnessing the available technology, they have been able to build remote solutions that make executive education more accessible than ever before, without compromising on the value and quality of courses.

With new technologies comes new security threats

As with any widespread uptake of technology, it’s important that any safety and privacy concerns are considered and quickly addressed.

It’s critical for universities, business schools and higher education institutes to think more carefully about student verification. Although the rise in distance and online learning has opened previously closed doors, the trade-off is that it creates space for scammers and fraudsters to thrive.

This could be in the form of fraudulent ‘diploma mills’ – unregulated institutions of higher education granting degrees with few or no academic requirements – or academic loans and student grant fraud. Admitting too many unqualified students, or allowing fraudsters to associate with you, could deteriorate top programmes’ reputations and devalue such courses. Distance education clearly offers many advantages; however, the opportunity for fraud should not be one of them.

Eliminating fraud through verification

Institutions offering courses online now need to consider how they can weed out fraud before an applicant is granted admission to a higher education course. Traditionally, professional document verification is known to be a complex and lengthy process, made even more complicated by a high rate of unverified candidates and fraudulent applicants. For example, an investigation by the BBC found that in 2013 and 2014, more than 3,000 fake qualifications were sold to UK-based buyers.

However, a primary source verification (PSV) solution enhanced by blockchain technology is one of the latest innovations in the market that has the potential to transform the applicant process as we know it. This starts with verifying student identities and previous education at the source, ensuring that the person completing the activities is the same person that registered.

As university certificates are highly sensitive documents in terms of the information they contain, blockchain technology allows such documents to be stored as ‘fingerprints’ instead. Each fingerprint is individual and does not reveal any information about the document it belongs to, which of course safeguards the information it contains and enables the owner of the document – in this case, an executive education applicant – to choose exactly who can access their verified personal information. In computer science lingo, these fingerprints are called ‘hashes’. Bundled together, the signature of these hashes is stored on the blockchain and can be checked against an individual’s credentials.

For institutions offering executive education courses, blockchain can drastically streamline the verification process by eliminating the continual churn of verification requests on educational institutions for each applicant. For applicants themselves, the process is also expedited as their credentials only need to be verified once before being saved on the blockchain. They can then share this with potential employers at any point during their careers, who can check the validity of the verification against the blockchain, rather than having to verify the same information over and over every time the details on the qualifications are required.

Ultimately, more stringent document and ID verification procedures can ensure an institution’s academic integrity by mitigating any fraud-related risks.

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