Thousands of companies in Pakistan offer fake admissions to students into Western schools. For the firms it's a lucrative business, and for the students it's often the only way to leave the country. DW examines.
"Want to study in Europe? Consult us. Hundreds of foreign universities and colleges are affiliated with us, and our experts provide invaluable tips," reads a billboard near the University of Karachi campus.
Many students queue up to register at one such consultancy organization in the Bahadurabad area of Pakistan's biggest metropolis. They are hopeful that the firm will get them fake degrees or an admission into a business school in the UK. It hardly matters to them whether the school is prestigious; all they want is to leave the country.
Easy access to Europe?
"We have no future in Pakistan. Europe's worst colleges are better than our best universities. And of course, there is a chance that we could get a work permit after completing the course," Ali Reza, a 24-year-old economics student, told DW.
Young Pakistanis are desperate to leave the country. The economic situation in the South Asian nation is worsening, and the unemployment rate is getting higher by the day. For the country's students, the only available option to leave and find a better life is to get admissions abroad.
This is where the countless "consultancy firms" come into action as they cash in on the youth's desperation. They claim to offer students "easy access" to Western universities and colleges, including those in European countries such as Germany. But many of these companies get them into schools that only exist on paper, as they have connections with bogus companies in the West, or with some foreign agents.
"While studying in London, I met some Pakistani students who somehow managed to get the British visa on fake admissions," Abdul Agha, an Islamabad-based journalist, told DW. "But they were not studying there; they had been employed by shops owned by South Asians."
According to the BBC, its investigation team last year found that fake University of Kent degree certificates were being sold online for £500 (679 euros).
Over the years, European countries have tightened their visa policies for Pakistani students and have ordered a crackdown on fake universities. In June, the British government acted against 190 bogus universities offering fake certificates.
"It will help protect the reputation of the UK as a provider of high-quality education," according to Jo Johnson, England's Universities and Science Minister. The UK happens to be the first choice of Pakistani students. The Scandinavian countries, Poland and Germany come next.
"Such action is in the interest of all legitimate providers and genuine students," Johnson added.
Fake degrees scam
Earlier this year, a fake degree scandal involving an Internet-technology firm rocked the Islamic country. On May 17, The New York Times published an investigative report about "a vast education empire" of hundreds of Western universities and schools offering online degrees in various disciplines. At least 370 of them existed only "as stock photos on computer servers," the report claimed.
The investigation into the scandal is still ongoing, but there are claims that tens of millions of dollars in estimated revenue were made by the secretive Pakistani software company Axact from many thousands of people around the world, the report said.
Experts say that Pakistani authorities and relevant ministries have no interest whatsoever in acting against the firms that offer fake admissions to students.
Some analysts believe the fake admissions business is hard to tackle because of Pakistan's deteriorating security situation
"The government is not taking any step to ban the fake firms that are involved in enrolling students in foreign universities. In the end, the students lose a lot of money. It is a huge business in Pakistan," Irfan Haider, a reporter for Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, told DW, adding that the education ministry, the inter-provincial coordination ministry and the ministry of interior are responsible for dealing with this issue.
But according to journalist Agha, the companies cannot survive without government's covert support: "They (the firms) bribe the government officials. The business involves large amounts of money."
Some analysts, however, believe the fake admissions business is hard to tackle because of the country's deteriorating security situation. They say that extremist violence and the overall security situation are forcing many Pakistanis to look for ways to flee the country, and that they will use any avenue that provides them with this opportunity.
"I know that it won't be an easy life in Europe, but it's better to clean dishes in Germany than to get killed by gunmen in Pakistan," Reza said.