Glyndwr University is offering £200 to current students and alumni if they successfully refer a friend to the institution, which suggests that marketing techniques used in the US are moving into the UK.
The scheme was branded as a sign of “desperation” by one marketing expert, but defended by another.
Referees receive the money if their friend firmly accepts an offer from the Wrexham-based institution. The offer, now in its second year, is available only to UK and European Union students.
Paul Temple, reader emeritus at the Institute of Education, University of London, criticised the scheme because it “reduces one of the most important decisions the potential student will ever make to the level of an ordinary consumer purchase”.
The message it sent out was “one of desperation: ‘we are so unconfident that our students and alums will speak up for us that we have to pay them’ ”, he added.
But Peter Reader, head of the marketing and communications department at the University of Portsmouth, said that the scheme was “understandable” because it encouraged personal recommendations, which are critical for students when deciding where to study.
A spokesman for Glyndwr said that the scheme had been introduced because “our satisfied students are the best people to recommend us as a friendly, welcoming and progressive university to friends”.
Asked how many people had taken up the offer, he said: “We are pleased with the response to the incentive.” The university is currently unable to sponsor new international students after having its visa licence suspended in June, and in 2012-13 had a deficit of almost a 10th of its turnover.
The offer appears to be much more widespread among US universities than in the UK. Western Governors University in Utah offers those who recommend a friend a $20 (£12) gift voucher for its merchandise store, and waives the application fee for those applying.
The universities of Essex and Liverpool both offer rewards for referring students to their online programmes.