Police are investigating a suspected bogus-student immigration racket after reported attempts to obtain university places for Chinese students with fake qualifications.
Derby University this week confirmed that it has alerted the police after its checks on a number of Chinese applicants uncovered fake graduation certificates.
Warnings about the alleged fraud are being circulated around international admissions officers, who fear such frauds are increasing dramatically as new overseas student markets emerge.
It is understood that Derby's international office admissions officer, Markus Eberhardt, was approached by an individual apparently acting as a recruitment agent looking to place 16 Chinese students on undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses.
The university was provided with faxed copies of five graduation certificates and 11 certificates of enrolment, all purporting to be from alumni of the Mudanjiang University in the Heilongjiang Province of China.
The qualifications were checked with the registry at the Mudanjiang University, who confirmed that none of the 16 students had ever been at the institution.
Immigration officials have been particularly concerned about universities and colleges becoming easy targets for illegal immigrants.
Foreign Office figures show that some 12 per cent of overseas student visa applications are rejected - double the rate of rejection of other visa applications - showing a high rate of abuse of the student system.
Students had been reported to have disappeared after entering the United Kingdom on student visas, obtained after receiving offers for college places using fake qualifications.
Clive Saville, chief executive of the UK council for overseas student affairs, said: "It is clear that in China and elsewhere there are people who try to establish student status in order to beat the immigration system."
China sends more students to the UK than any other country except the United States. It has overtaken Malaysia and Hong Kong in the past year, sending some 10,332 students in 2000-01, according to the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Mr Saville said institutions would learn to be vigilant, despite the initial attraction of high overseas fees, as the cost of recruiting phantom students became clear.
He said: "Institutions are beginning to understand that there are very substantial risks to recruiting people who are not genuine. Accommodation is often reserved for students who don't show up, agents' fees are wasted, and, of course, they don't meet their student numbers."
Police advised Derby not to discuss the case.