Derby University has enlisted its staff to spy on rival institutions as the competition for students hots up at the start of top-up fees year.
In a recent e-mail that was passed to The Times Higher , Sean Durkan, Derby's acting customer relations manager, asks staff to help the university gather "competitor intelligence" for the marketing department.
He says: "As university staff members you may well come in to contact with, have previously worked for or have friends working at other higher education institutions.
"There may also be a number of you who have children currently applying to university or have recently started university and have experiences to share from their decision-making or application process... "This intelligence is extremely important to us, enabling us to benchmark our activity against competitors and allowing us to identify if there are any gaps in our offering or areas we could improve on."
Mr Durkan suggests that staff who "obtained or experienced anything from other institutions" that may be useful - such as promotional literature or "ideas" - should pass it on to the marketing department.
Fears are rife across higher education that students may be deterred from applying to university because top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year will be charged from this autumn.
Peter Allen, Derby's marketing director, said the memo "reflects common practice throughout many universities".
He said: "We are merely asking to share information at a very informal level so that we can further enhance our service to potential students.
"There is nothing sinister or underhand about this request. The idea came from a member of our academic staff whose daughter is applying to various universities.
"We thought it would be useful to see if other staff could help out in a very informal way."
Andy Pike, a national official at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "If the university wants our members to act as industrial spies, they can expect us to add this activity to the long list of responsibilities that will merit pay increases under the new pay structure under discussion on campus."