Overseas students are employing professional translators to help them write essays and dissertations because their English is so poor, The Times Higher has learnt.
The problem came to light this week as it emerged that an external examiner at Bolton University had raised the alarm about the practice on a masters course at the university last year.
The examiner said the practice was a cause for concern as students were being awarded a British higher education qualification "yet they may not have the standard of English language that this would normally imply".
Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, said the practice undermined the "currency" of British degrees and was a mounting concern as universities became more reliant on the fees paid by overseas students.
"Degrees are a form of currency and any employer accepting a British degree will take it to signify that the holder will have been assessed in English and will therefore be a fluent English speaker," he said. "But employers will wise up sooner or later and the currency will be devalued as they learn that the degree does not mean what it claims to mean."
The external examiner for Bolton's MA in human resource management raised concerns over the use of translation services in a 2004 report. He said the issue had been raised at the university's spring exam board. The examiner commented: "I do recognise that it would be difficult to prevent students from using such services but I think it underlines the importance of retaining at least some examinations in order to assess the level of English language usage."
According to the university's official response, Paul Birkett, head of Bolton's Academic Quality and Standards Unit, had agreed with the external examiner that the use by students of a translator service could be construed as plagiarism since it was "not all their own work".
The university said that remaining students on the course, which was being discontinued after December 2004, would be notified about the issue and the course leader of the new MA in human resources management would be advised about the potential "ramifications".
The acting course leader, Judith Myers, told The Times Higher that there was no evidence that students used translation services but "there was a slight suspicion" that students were writing their work in their own language and then asking friends to help translate it into English.
She said that the masters course had enrolled "ten to 15" foreign students who were struggling with English.
The university had especially been concerned about students from Arab countries, who would translate course material, write their essays in Arabic and then translate their work back into English.
George MacDonald Ross, a philosopher at Leeds University, said this week that he had seen advertisements for professional proofreading services on university noticeboards - presumably with the consent of the administration.
He said such assistance could not be regarded as legitimate teamwork or collaboration and could probably be considered plagiarism.