The rise of the fake PhD

AN INFAMOUS story recently coming out of nearby South Africa is that that country’s so-called foremost economist, Thabi Leoka, who acted as an economic advisor to President Cyril Ramaphosa and served on prestigious boards, never actually earned a PhD in economics as previously claimed.
Leoka has been keen on analysing South Africa’s budget and giving expert opinions on big economic matters while all along falsely claiming to have earned a terminal degree from the famous London School of Economics (LSE) of the University of London.
In a dramatic turn of events, when South Africa’s Business Day exposed her fraud, she threatened to sue the publication! Nothing happened because she could not produce her diploma certificate or indeed her doctoral dissertation.
The story got even more interesting when it transpired that the University of London actually offers no PhD in economics.
Leoka herself earned her master’s in economics from LSE. What she lacked was the PhD she had long laid claim to, which arguably accounted for a great deal of her credibility as a thought leader in her field.
Following this damning investigation, the South African presidency moved in swiftly to get rid of Leoka and drew attention to the importance of integrity, transparency, and accountability among public officials.
According to South African law, the discredited economist could be slapped with jail time or indeed a fine, or both.
The rise of the fake PhD is not a problem unique to South Africa, but it is faced by many countries, including Zambia. Not only do we have to contend with fake PhDs, but we also have illegitimate ones among us who earned their qualifications through dubious means and yet masquerade as authorities and voices of reason.
Since academia is very elite, especially at the level of these terminal degrees, it is very easy to fool the general public of one’s “high-level” knowledge, including the presidency itself, as the case of Leoka has suggested.
Only people who have actually gone through the gruelling rigours of the academic process can typically tell who the crooked PhD is, who is lying through their
teeth. In short, it takes a PhD to know a PhD.
As a PhD student in the United States myself, I was intrigued by a well-known Zambian who claimed to have earned a PhD not a long time ago.
When I looked them up, the first thing I did was to check the publication they must have submitted for the award of their doctorate. Well, it was a likely questionable study published in a predatory journal. But how did I know? I easily checked the journal’s editorial team, which is simply non-existent.The problem with these kinds of predatory journals is that they try to promote shortcuts. They publish shoddy studies which cannot be replicated or cannot indeed be the basis of sound knowledge.
But then imagine practitioners of this fraud being associated with the corridors of power and discharging public duties?
As a most recent case of fraud at the highest level in the public arena, the Leoka story has set a precedent which, albeit negative, should challenge institutions of governance to conduct due diligence before appointing individuals to positions of public importance.
It is not enough for someone to be a smooth talker or dresser. Qualifications must be evaluated on their own merit.
One effective way of doing this, besides checking university records, is to request for the actual PhD dissertation.
A good probe should not end there. The recipient of the degree should be able to effortlessly speak about their work, its methodology and literature, and what contribution it made to their field.There are many quacks out there who claim to have PhDs, including other qualifications, but don’t even know what a thesis or dissertation committee looks like.
The process leading up to a graduate degree in a legitimate institution is a very hard one, paved with all kinds of resistance, some as a result of the student’s own doing, but some because of the nature of the system. Graduate school is a Darwinian environment where only the toughest survive.
We cannot disregard the rigour of the academic process.
As the foundation on which individuals build careers, it offers essential life lessons on the need for excellence, diligence, and accountability.
But even more important is the need to understand that propping up fake PhDs like Leoka undermines meritocracy and drags the sacrosanctity of knowledge into ridicule and shame, as if it didn’t matter anymore.
I believe that the world has been in existence for a long time for us to know that the path to doom is wide for any society that disregards knowledge.
The author is a PhD student and graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Journalism and Communication at Colorado State University.