A STUDENT admissions fraud squad has uncovered evidence of a large number of bogus applications for places on nursing courses.
It comes just as the verification unit of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service received news of a cash lifeline from the government.
The unit, whose future looked uncertain last autumn when the Department for Education and Employment said it would get no more pump-priming cash, is to get another Pounds 100,000 over two years.
As higher education's first line of defence against admissions deception, the unit is worried that nursing courses have become the target for organised fraud.
Alan Ball, the unit's manager, said: "We are finding there are a considerable number of nursing applications we are receiving at the moment that are, quite simply, bent. It is too early to say yet, but we are worried they may be linked to organised gangs. We think we could be only scratching the surface of the problem."
Mr Ball said his unit could be saving the Exchequer millions of pounds every year because fraudsters used higher education admissions as a gateway to bank accounts and credit, as well as student awards and loans.
He called on universities and colleges to strengthen their own arrangements for preventing applicants using other people's identities and bogus qualifications from slipping through the net.
"We are trying to drum up awareness within institutions and encourage them to set up better preventive measures," he said.
The decision to give the unit more cash follows a glowing appraisal of its work in an Audit Commission report, Protecting the Public Purse, which said the unit had helped bring annual student awards fraud down from Pounds 4.9 million to Pounds 900,000.
Ministers are also understood to be keen to keep anti-fraud systems in place as the government's new student support regime is phased in.