Several overseas students were excluded from Oxford Brookes University this week after an investigation by The Times Higher into the use of fake qualifications to secure places at a number of UK institutions.
An agent for Chinese students told an undercover researcher last week that he had fixed university places for "hundreds" of unqualified students, for fees of several thousand pounds each, over the past three years.
A first-year undergraduate at Oxford Brookes University confirmed to the researcher that he had secured an unconditional offer for £4,000 using fake A-level results, when he had only a basic English-language qualification.
The allegations were passed on to Oxford Brookes, which said that it had made the exclusions this week as a result of its own checks on student qualifications. The university could not confirm the names or nationalities of the excluded students.
The Oxford-based agent called "Mandi" said he had also placed students at Birmingham University, which said this week that through its disciplinary processes it had already "identified and excluded several students" who had fraudulently gained places on its courses and said it was "actively pursuing" others.
The investigation comes amid fears that admissions fraud is growing in a competitive international student market and is defeating attempts to stamp it out.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service revealed that 2004 had been a record year for detected fraudulent admissions, but it said that some fraud among the 480,000 applications handled each year would inevitably be missed.
About 1,000 fraudulent applicants were caught by its validation unit, including a group of about 200 people from China and a similar number from Pakistan, whose applications were cancelled before they arrived at university.
But Ucas said it could only act on intelligence and monitor for suspicious application patterns, such as the multiple use of one address. It does not authenticate each applicant's entry qualifications because this is the responsibility of each university.
Practices at universities vary and do not always include specific checks with exam boards that an applicant's qualifications are genuine. Birmingham said: "The Ucas system for undergraduates requires copies of qualifications that meet conditions."
Ucas noted that 18-year-old home students' A-level results are confirmed automatically by exam boards on results day, but institutions are responsible for checking the credentials of those outside the main admissions system.
Other universities said they ask to see original documents, but this would not guard against convincing fakes.
Barry Sheerman, chairman of the House of Commons Education Select Committee, this week promised to push for an investigation. He said: "If we are to continue to boast that the UK is the gold standard of international higher education, it is essential that all entry to university is based on merit, not fraud."
His call for an inquiry was backed by Chris Grayling, the Conservative Party's Shadow Higher Education Minister, and the British Council.
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