Allegations of cronyism are dogging government plans to raise the number of prestigious scholarships for overseas students to study in Britain.
The Foreign Office was quick this week to scotch rumours that Chevening scholarships, worth Pounds 35 million a year in total, have been awarded to the children of British Embassy or High Commission officials abroad.
The rumours allegedly emerged from workshops on attracting overseas students held at the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' annual residential meeting last month.
One vice-chancellor, who did not wish to be named, said that a British Council representative at one of the workshops openly admitted the scholarships were going to people "with the right connections", although officials in one country had now decided to "no longer award scholarships to the sons and daughters of vice-chancellors".
The government plans to create 1,000 more scholarships, bringing the total to about 2,200 a year with a value up to Pounds 50 million. An extra 300 Chevening awards are expected to be on offer next year.
The move is part of a high-profile campaign, conceived and launched by the prime minister to make it easier for overseas students to study in Britain.
With Whitehall only prepared to provide an extra Pounds 3 million, the Foreign Office is asking universities to help cover the extra cost through cash contributions, "part-scholarships" or an up-to-20 per cent fee reduction.
But growing concern over the criteria used by British ambassadors to decide which scholarship applications are successful has prompted the Foreign Office to send vice-chancellors a letter promising to investigate.
Ann Lewis, head of cultural relations at the Foreign Office, wrote: "I am disturbed to hear that one or two institutions think that choices are unduly affected by personal connections."
The Foreign Office is instructing embassies "not to contact institutions directly to put pressure on them to accept a candidate they may feel is not up to their standard", because "institutions have to be free to turn down any student if they wish", she added.
The CVCP has asked the Foreign Office for greater higher education involvement in selection for Chevening Scholarships. At present only the High Commission, embassy and British Council staff overseas are involved.
A Foreign Office spokesman said the main criteria used were academic ability and "leadership potential".
David Tupman, CVCP policy advisor for overseas issues, said there had also been "some disquiet" among vice-chancellors over the Foreign Office's request for fee cuts to help pay for the planned Chevening expansion.
In another letter, Ms Lewis said her office was prepared to be flexible over the form of institutional contributions to the scheme. Sir Colin Campbell, vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham and former chairman of the British Council's Education Counselling Service, condemned the rumours. "I totally support what the government is trying to do with these scholarships. The last couple of kings of Malaysia studied here and that has helped relations between Malaysia and Britain for the past 50 years.Chevening scholars are able people chosen in open competition."