How to Get The Degree You Want, OR Are You A Fake?

@6 June 2003 - 25 June 2010
Thor May : thormay AT


Two topics are put through the mincer here. The preliminary sections are a discussion about the nature, meaning and value of academic qualifications. The second part (the original posting) puts a spotlight on one university (Greenwich University, Hawaii) which actually disappeared, leaving its graduates stranded. I was one of the victims. The great gawking public of course cares little for collapsing institutions but has an endless appetite for personal scandal, so affected individuals usually head for deep cover. I thought it was more useful to let the sun shine in since I've always been allergic to anything that looked like a conventional career anyway.

Some related matters are also covered elsewhere on this Internet site, Pissing On Every Lamp Post: the paradox of scholarship; The Doctor's Dilemma - Reading versus Active Experience; Why Write a PhD?; withdrawal from PhD candidacies (Thor May, letter) in 1988 & 1996;letter of PhD completion from the University of Newcastle, 2010;dissertation, Language Tangle, 2010 Articles from this website are gradually also being copied to a blog called Thor's Unwise Ideas

Part A : So does Thor May have a deep, dark secret?

Sorry folks, not the kind your are looking for anyhow. For the record, here's the conventional, squeaky clean academic story as things stand in 2010 :

The writer's current academic qualifications include a) a PhD in language teaching productivity from the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia (awarded 2010); b) an Australian Master of Applied Linguistics from the same place; c) an RSA/Cambridge CTEFLA; d) a New Zealand Postgraduate Diploma of Teaching from Auckland Secondary Teachers College (nowadays absorbed into the University of Auckland, NZ); e) a Bachelor of Arts degree from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. These baubles have supported a slow accumulation, since 1976, of real workplace knowledge in language teaching and lecturing linguistics. The standard life-story epilogue is that now, approaching 65, I should toddle off into the sunset. No thanks. I'd prefer immortality, but in the meantime settle for teaching English in central China to young ladies (see here, and here) plus 5km of interval training a day, and lifting weights (see here).

Part B: So what is an academic qualification anyway?

An academic qualification is a piece of paper which affirms that you have negotiated a certain cultural ritual. It entails a cultural transition for the individual which he or she expects to confer certain rights, usually of employment, and also usually of social status. The gatekeepers of this cultural transition attach conditions to the award. The conditions are, in effect, that according to their judgements you have internalized a compendium of accepted knowledge and/or mastered some skills to a measurable standard. There is an implication (stronger in some jurisdictions than others) that you have been able to exercise organized self-discipline in a way that will render you useful in responsible positions. There is NO serious claim, except in research awards (where it is frequently false) that you are original, innovative, street smart, or generally able to exceed the requirements placed on any white-collar cubicle slave or faithful technician. The academic qualification is said to be protected by a moat of ability and foot soldiers of the intellectual elite to keep the peasants out. However it is also quite clear that masters of the gate keepers, more and more, want a high monetary fee to let you cross the draw-bridge.

I've been both a peasant and a minor sentinel on the gate. The business of judging other people is always fraught, and in most areas of life we expect disagreement. For example, where divorce is easily available, 30-50% of marriages seem to fail, which is a pretty tart comment on the most important judgement many people will ever make. Yet somehow it is culturally accepted that schools, colleges and universities have solid authority to judge the aptitudes, mental development and skill levels of the students who pass through them. After 34 years as a teacher and lecturer, I know that these academic judgements in both the "worst" and the "best" schools are dubious, inconsistent and not infrequently warped by all kinds of extraneous factors. Further, even the best schools contain plenty of drifters, while even the worst schools (in my experience) have a significant number of students and teachers who put their hearts into the enterprise of learning.

Academic diplomas are not going to disappear. They are essential brand stamps on individuals in a complex world. People buy branded soap powder, lip stick and motor cars because a) they think that the brand guarantees them a certain level and consistency of quality; and b) the brand associates them with a certain level of prestige. Earnest folk in consumer organizations demonstrate time and again that this brand or that is not worth the money, but these revelations rarely do lasting damage. There are vastly better funded marketing professionals who devote their lives to promoting the brand illusion. Some products of course are good, but that is another issue.

And so it goes - as with soap powder, so it is with schools / colleges / universities. Where anybody actually bothers to even look at your diploma, the overwhelming odds are that they will care about the brand label, not the personal substance of knowledge, understanding or skill that lies behind it. They will yawn uncontrollably if you suggest that they read your dissertation. This fact is supremely true of employers and their gate keepers (so-called HR or human relations specialists). Brand will also be what counts for those characters you meet at parties, the person you sit next to on an aeroplane, perhaps even your friends and family. In short, the people who judge you are mostly ignorant because they can't possibly see inside your head, or they are busy, or they are not equipped to make a reliable judgement, or they are lazy, or they don't really care anyway. That's life, and we are stuck with it.

It has not escaped the attention of careerists, whether they be students, career academics of a certain kind, or the managerial classes, that almost always brand matters more than substantive knowledge in schools / colleges / universities. For these people the pragmatic "realities" are perfectly clear. Their public vocabulary is rich with adjectives denoting worth, solidity, integrity and so on. It is the universal language of bankers, and their preference in architecture follows the same rationale. Usually they have the money, so usually they get what they want, which is a marketable but almost content-free diploma.

A footnote to this story: I happen to be Australian, a member of one lucky, small nation (21 million people) which inherited the British educational model. That model was widely perceived to be home to good academic brand names, so after a slow start the Australians have cashed out big on the label. So big that international students are supposed to be a major part of the economy, about sixteen billion dollars worth. We've all heard about the 'oil curse', the deep corruption of nation states floating on crude. You could say that something comparable has been dragging Australian tertiary education down the sink hole. East Asian and South Asian students, fleeing the hopelessly compromised institutions of their home countries, have headed to places like Australia in search of a credible diploma. Alas, riven by status ambitions, drowning in huge loans, flailing in a language they barely comprehend, but bearing gifts of irresistible cash, this tidal wave of Asian students has swamped and seduced whatever pretensions to quality the small Australian market may have had. The managerial 'realists' have rubbed their hands in glee and pocketed the dollars. The politicians have made fine speeches, tinged with a fear of abandonment. The best of the local Australian students are bitter, their tolerance of neighbouring cultures sorely tested. The invading hordes, having trampled the virgin field, now begin to see it as little better than home and threaten a stampede for the exits. Sad story. I actually live in China. I like my students. Why did it have to turn out this way .... ?

There is an implicit problem with the commercial schema just described (regardless of whether or not international students are involved). A much promoted argument is that the ascendance financial priorities need not undermine educational productivity. In narrow instances this can be true. However, taken across the spectrum of education and research it is not true. (This is a common phenomenon in nature. To make a slightly bizarre analogy, individual Americans can be very tall, but Americans as a national group have moved from being the tallest people in the world in the 1950s, to now being shorter than some West Europeans like the Dutch. The reason? Poorer quality nutrition, resulting from greater social inequalities across the nation). When it comes to the education of creative, independent thinkers, the intellectual capital of a country, no amount of advertising and gloss can substitute for the genuine thrill a motivated student gets from true inquiry, experiment and discovery, including self-discovery. This is simply not the experience which comes out of an industrial degree mill.

Part C: Truths, and the illusions of truth

If our civilizations were all image and no substance we would be back to swinging through the trees in a generation or two. Someone out there actually has to have the real skill and knowledge to achieve precision engineering. Someone actually does have to have the ability to manage the mind bending logistics of a modern city. Someone actually does need the age old wisdom and skills of keeping warring egos in productive harmony in a phenomenally complex world. Above all, someone does need the reckless passion (death to a safe career hope) of risking all to truly ferret out 'unknown unknowns', truly challenge conventional wisdom, and actually be there mentally to deal with little green men when they land in their spaceships (or from an earlier age, to cope with uncouth, unimagined European ghosts in big white ships with guns).

Strip away the advertising spin, the marketing bullshit, and there are some remarkably capable people in our daily lives. Thank the gods for that. Some of the saviours of civilization have nice diplomas, many of them don't. Without them we'd be impoverished or dead very quickly. History is littered with the debris of demolished cultures where the able were spurned for fashion and pretence. These critical people can be found at every level of a society, they are always in a minority, and only a handful of them ever get anything like a just reward for keeping the vast, parasitic majority in cream cakes. As a teacher, I try to remember them.

Happiness is where you find it. There is a place in Hong Kong called Happy Valley where they run race horses, and another in Pennsylvania that boasts a university. A third in New Zealand is threatened by an open cut coal mine. Happiness in any of these places is surely accidental and probably rare. Education too is where you find it. There are countless piles of brick and concrete across the planet where 'education' is on the name plate. People go to these places and squat, waiting for education like they wait for love. Hmm.

This posting had its genesis as a reminiscence on a place of education, a university that went 'bad', that somehow became 'fake'. What are we to think of the people who become entangled in failed institutions, failed companies, and failed countries? It is really the flip side of those places that 'succeed'. The employees of Fortune 500 companies puff out their chests, florid English gents at the height of Britain's fleeting empire were persuaded of the white man's genetic superiority, the brief glory of some 'nation' (read 'team') that scores a World Cup has slobs across the nation in drunken self-congratulation. It's nothing to the preening on graduation day that goes on in places of education, where people have squatted, waiting to be anointed.

Then in sadder scenes, I've taught refugees from hell-holes on earth, raised from infancy with an apologetic stoop, a diffidence that comes from surviving by collecting cigarette butts from the gutters, or submitting to bought sex to feed a hungry child, or a thousand other humiliations. When they felt safe at last with me, a teacher in a strange land, they'd boast shyly that their home, Babylon or Ankor or Addis Ababa... had hosted kings of kings in other ages. Somewhere, from a rumour of a relative who became famous, a country that was once rich, a beauty that had faded, they would find a wisp of succour and self respect by association. And so it goes for the multitudes in public education, good and bad, where the tools, instead of blood and iron, are castles in the air of words, endlessly embroidered, for which we award scrolls declaring superior truths and greater worth. Or not.

So what is truth? John Donne, the dean of London's St Pauls Cathedral half a millennium ago, caught it in his poet's voice: "On a huge hill / Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will / Reach her, about must and about must go, And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so." Ah, but that's a hard sell in an age of managerial mission statements.

Universities  (in particular) should be fascinating places where people question all that comes before them. Such a Shangri-La of minds is rarely met, even where the heady scents of 'brilliant reputations' hang with intoxicating promise in the air. Some of us are fascinated by rare blooms on more barren ground. At the moment I teach in a crumbling technical college in Central China where the unquestioned assumption by most staff is that some hand-me-down information is to be ladled into the brains of students, not questioned (questioning is close to being a punishable offence). Fortunately 20 year- old students, even if they are mostly not at the dizzy heights of an IQ league, can be coaxed into questioning a surprising number of things. That is why I enjoy teaching, with its inherently subversive possibilities.

However, for those with institutional experience, it will come as no surprise that the skeptic is an unwelcome guest in most environments, not least schools / colleges / universities. The dominant ambition amongst mature adults everywhere is to be a 'respected vegetable', and that is a wish not compatible with a curious mind. Nor is cognitive dissonance very compatible with the vegetable condition. The outcome, perhaps inevitable, is that places like universities tend to be rich breeding grounds for ritual, self-deception, and mutual conspiracies of group-deception.

Errol Morris, in a five part New York Times series has recently catalogued some permutations of this theme through the phenomenon of the anosognosic patient who has a deficiency but denies its existence; ( His drift is that our ability to function turns on a belief that we 'know the truth' about most things. In the special and dangerous mode of science seeking, some of the wise are are licensed to look for answers to 'known unknowns'. Chaos and the uncontrollable however are proscribed from human minds by both biology and culture. Cultures are implicitly threatened by those who would seek out the 'unknown unknowns'. Free spirits without piety are seen as perilous to themselves and all who know them.

The unknown unknowns, like dark matter in the universe, may be the greater part of future danger and opportunity, but it can't be put in a course curriculum, it can't be justified in a so-called 'research grant', and it can't be used as student bait to promise a five figure income to graduates. That is, the great educational Potemkin facade, the one that marketers and brand spinners understand, is configured for an assembly line of cloning old knowledge. It can never prepare us for the aliens coming over the horizon. Those of us, teachers and students, who toy with "useless" questions are never going to get much respect. But heck, with that passion, we do have interesting lives.

Part D - The university which disappeared

Sometime in 2004 the real subject of this article, Greenwich University, Hawaii, vanished into the ether forever without warning or explanation. Apparently it took its academic records to heaven too because a lot of people were left stranded on the beach. There is a new outfit at almost the same address, Akamai University, and apparently run by the ex-president of Greenwich. Now, after a long silence, the website for has reappeared (April 2006) with an offer to provide transcripts under the stewardship of Akamai university.

Well, I was one of the unhappy punters left on the beach. A lot of work went into my version of a Greenwich degree, based on my earlier doctoral research at an Australian university. Obviously though, I no longer had a viable product to sell in the marketplace, where brand names are everything. I did the only thing possible : a second Masters degree at a safe location, the University of Newcastle, Australia (a government owned university). This degree was awarded in July 2005 with high distinctions in all subjects: see here for the testamur and transcript . Since then I've squirreled away at yet another PhD dissertation from the same place - an analysis of language teaching productivity which has now been awarded (2010). The abstract of this thesis can be seen here. Yeah, some dummies like me never learn to let this stuff be. In due course I'll be a very well qualified corpse.

The common labeling and evaluation of diplomas also needs some comment. Over my lifetime, there has been a severe inflation of meaning for such things. When I left high school at the end of 1961 for example, a pass was 50%, while 80% was pretty outstanding. Today students grumble at a mere 'B' grade which is now often rated at 80% and routinely awarded for very average work. As to diplomas themselves, the one year postgraduate teaching diploma I was awarded in 1976 would have the currency today in many university education faculties of a coursework Masters degree. The one year of postgraduate work I did in 1978 at U. Newcastle prior to taking on a PhD involved coursework, seminar presentations and extensive research essays in theoretical linguistics which were even reviewed by an external examiner at Macquarie University. It was all assessed at "first class honours standard" in a nice letter from the head of the department, but by regulations at the time, no diploma was awarded because I had graduated at another university in New Zealand (talk about a rip off..). Today that kind of work would almost universally be awarded with a coursework Masters qualification. In contemporary terms then, measured by real achievement, I have four of these wretched Masters things ... but that doesn't count in the marketplace.

Part 4 - The original squeal of pain (2003)

Are you a fake? This was the engaging header on an e-mail which recently arrived in my mailbox. Well, I admit to a fake tooth, but I think the rest of me is as real as real can be. Truth to tell, the odds are good that the world in general doesn't give a damn if I'm plastic, ivory or Martian rock. Still, the writer had in mind a qualification from my resumé, a Masters degree in Formal and Applied Linguistics, granted by the august institution of Greenwich University, Hawaii. Therein lies a tale, and regardless of my hapless fate, perhaps a lesson for other hopefuls. After all, many of the people who read these pages are engaged in that quest for the holy grail of our age, the marketable degree, and probably need as much advice as they can get.

Most people think they know what a university is. Close study however reveals a moveable feast. For employers now universities are essentially brand labels which trade on their reputation in exactly the same way as Rolex watches and expensive automobiles. Grotesquely overpriced brand labels too. The actual innards of the places, and especially the innards of your courses or thesis, don't interest a whole lot of people. In the real world, that word 'university' refers to an ever multiplying variety of institutions, few of which have anything to do with the seminaries, then the gentlemen's study retreats of Medieval Europe where it mostly began (at least the Occidental variety). Even the bulk of state universities now are business enterprises for whom "knowledge transmission" is an industrial product.

For several decades a class of 'non-traditional' universities has been trying to emerge with varying success. The class includes places that genuinely attempt to widen the paths to knowledge for more kinds of people by evaluating their prior learning, by being flexible about subjects and delivery modes, and so on. Those are fine aims, but they don't go down well with your average 25 year-old personnel clerk who is sorting through a stack of job applications. Nevertheless the flexibility battle is slowly being won through the back door as the big established institutions, hungry for dollars, bend their own rules at the edges. The Internet is affecting this equation dramatically as online courses become commonplace. At the outer edges of this money game of course are the degree mills, who will send you a diploma by return post instead of making you suck their milkshakes for four years.

Now to my particular stake in the name game. Greenwich University (the Californian, not the English one) has certainly had a mixed history and I'd think twice about engaging it in 2003. The hazy image creates some job-getting problems for me, but at 57 I'm reluctant to invest more time and scarce cash in academic nonsense-games when there is so much else to do (in my case, to write) in a very short life. No, even now I think Greenwich is not into "selling degrees" for jam, (though god knows, after a lifetime in and around academia, I've decided that most so-called accredited universities do just that with the huge number of students who graduate knowing sweet damn-all..). For what it is worth, here is the link to the Greenwich academic requirements page:

Greenwich University was located in Hawaii when I found it. Later it moved to Norfolk Island, which is a self-governing Australian territory, specifically of the state of New South Wales. The Norfolk Island parliament granted Greenwich University an official charter of recognition, which the NSW parliament was sort of obliged to ratify. This infuriated the regular Australian universities, and there followed a protracted period of bureaucratic civil war. Evidently things finally became unpleasant enough for Greenwich to pack up and move to California, where it began but aborted a move to seek accreditation there, and at last report had moved back to Hawaii. A recent personal note from Dr. John Bear (attached) suggests that all this has taken its toll on Greenwich leadership. Let's hope they get their act together again soon.

What follows is a cautionary tale, a brief history of my tangle with Greenwich University. It is actually in the form of a criticism I shot off to an Internet site called The Millennium Project a few months ago (they haven't replied). The Millennium Project claims to identify and expose humbug.


I stumbled on your site by accident. You have done a nice hatchet job on Greenwich University ( I have no particular brief for the place... except that I hold a Masters from it, issued in 1994 when it was still Hawaii based. At least at that time it seemed like a reasonable option.

Why did I choose Greenwich? Well I had walked away from a Ph.D. candidacy at the University of Newcastle, NSW, after doing a lot of work on it, and publishing a couple of long papers (one 40 pages) in the Australian Journal of Linguistics. I was also cheesed off, because with knowledge and experience well beyond a normal MA (particularly so-called coursework MAs) I could still only lay claim to a BA.

In fact, after my preliminary postgrad' year at Newcastle, when the indigenes got Honours degrees, the university had said their regulations (at that time, 1978) had no provision for offering any scrap of paper to outsiders (I'd come from Victoria University of Wellington, NZ). The head of department gave me a nice letter saying my work was "equivalent to first class Honours standard". Personal letters don't hack a lot of kudos on the mean streets.

I went hunting for a way to get my work accredited for an MA in some manner that had a modicum of credibility, didn't cost the earth (I was nearly broke), and wouldn't involve pointless time serving in some university so they could add another postgraduate name to their books.. (most of the bastards play a game that says you come to their institution innocent of prior knowledge and can't possibly use whatever you've done before).

Bear's Guide ( pointed me at Greenwich as about the best available non-traditional university which could be talked into assessing my work as it stood. I assembled a portfolio. There was no additional coursework. They hired my old supervisor from the University of Newcastle as adjunct faculty. He knew me as well as anyone. He was Head of Department, and I had also taught the department's courses part-time for several years. The Greenwich system required 30 credits for an MA. His approval gave me 43 credits (47 needed for a Ph.D.).

Now you are right that Greenwich doesn't have great brand name recognition. On the other hand, it does you no honour to smear by implication everyone who might be carrying a piece of paper from the place. I'm not ashamed of anything I've written, and it is all still on my very large website, The Passionate Skeptic,

The role and status of modern universities is a vexed question. Most real research, especially in the humanities, can now be done with a good Internet connection from anywhere. Universities should be open colloquiums of active minds. Those of us who have spent years around the places know that by and large this is not the case. What of their products, the graduates? Some of course are impressive. But sadly most don't have an original idea to bless themselves with. Those shoals of 51% pass graduates, and even the plodding postgraduates who cauterize their brains with endless quotations, toddle out into the world anointed with the titles of their lofty institutions. They even believe that their knowledge is special. Certainly, employers buy the brand name, and rarely inquire after the substance of real achievement. In fact, most of those graduates understood a fraction of what they read, and quickly forget most of that. If you probe their insight, too often there is little to find. (See my little essay "Pissing On Every Lamp Post : the paradox of scholarship" at ).

So what are we to make of the vendetta between the Australian educational establishment and Greenwich? I think this is best separated from that class of events related to sports matches (your side/my side) and tribal warfare. Greenwich is an institution; so are the Australian universities. Each are composed of imperfect individuals, some of whom are well meaning and capable, others dubious. It may be that the principals of Greenwich fall into the dubious category nowadays. I don't know. But institutions have a constant stream of clients passing through their doors, and those clients when mutated into graduates (or whatever) deserve to be taken on their individual merits.

Well what about YOUR prospects? How do you get that ridiculous diploma, which you need for the employers, for the least cost in the shortest time? Bear's Guide (in spite of my unhappy experience) is still a good starting point. As with fashion everywhere, the best option is all a matter of taste and the company you want to keep. If you wish to sign onto the industrial academic treadmills of the 'great' universities as a lecturer, then you'll need a nice brand name degree, and one done by research, not by coursework. If you want to settle into the mosh pit of the teaching profession, coursework degrees are fine. The bureaucrats usually want 'accredited' degrees (though 'accredited' itself conceals a multitude of sins). In either case, the lecturer and the teacher, what you actually understand (let alone create) won't matter much. If you just want to impress the manager of Jones' Pickle Factory, there's a reputed suburb in Beijing where shady gents will sell you a degree from any place you fancy, and a passport too if you need that; (at one stage 80% of the immigrant applications from Shanghai to Australia featured fake qualifications..).

There is a chance of course that you are completely crazy, and want to do real research; (I still have a second, half-written Ph.D. tucked away that will take at least 500 years to properly develop..). In this case, you probably don't need to pay a university any bribe at all, or waste your life grovelling to their irrelevancies. Google is one of the most awesome research tools ever invented. If you still want direct access to some very clever people, MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) is in the process of putting all their coursework on the Internet -- for free. And MIT is a very fancy brand name indeed.

All opinions expressed in Thor's Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.

"How to Get The Degree You Want OR Are You A Fake?" © copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2003

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