A scheme marketing UK higher education to overseas students costs universities £15,000 each - but they are guaranteed only three extra recruits.
Twenty institutions, including the universities of Newcastle and Greenwich, and Edinburgh College of Art, have signed up to the programme, which is run by education marketing firm Hobsons.
Katherine Dunstan, group publisher at Hobsons, said: "We have guaranteed that we will deliver three students for each of 20 universities."
Hobsons was charging a membership fee of £15,000, she said, plus a set fee for commission.
Ms Dunstan said the group had held discussions as to how many extra applications individual institutions could expect.
She said: "The scheme is primarily a marketing tool to provide increased information to overseas students considering studying in the UK. As such, the success of the service will not be based upon the number of students recruited and therefore targets do not exist at this point."
But at the University of Newcastle, Terry McCarthy, director of the international office, said: "If (the number recruited) was less than ten to 15 in the first year, I would certainly be reconsidering the value of it."
Joanne Wall, of the University of Greenwich's international office, said she had "no idea" how many extra students might be attracted by the scheme.
She said: "It is just a supplement to our normal recruiting methods."
The programme will target a worldwide network of 7,000 educational agents that has been built up by a sister company of Hobsons.
Members of the network will be given up-to-date information about the 20 universities.
Hobsons will also run an administration centre to speed up communication between the agents and the universities.