A detection service designed to tackle the growing use of internet cheat sites will be launched next month.
Internet plagiarism, in which students cut and paste material from websites into assignments, is now widespread, according to the Joint Information Systems Committee, which is behind a new electronic detection service for all UK universities.
Malcolm Read, Jisc executive secretary, said it might not be possible to eradicate plagiarism completely but he warned universities that the consequences of failing to take action could be severe.
"If institutions are committed to upholding the credibility of their accreditation, they need to be seen to be taking the issue of plagiarism seriously," he said.
Jisc project manager Gill Chester said that while malicious cheating was a problem, there was also the additional and more common issue of students using the web innocently and committing plagiarism without realising it. The growing popularity of group working also made unacceptable collusion difficult to define.
Following a pilot project, Jisc has signed up to an online detection service developed by US software company iParadigms. The software checks students' essays for similarities with material on websites. Jisc said the service would build up a gigantic database of submitted assignments to prevent students copying essays written by predecessors or friends at other institutions.
Ms Chester said it was likely students would have to submit their own work for checking to relieve lecturers of the burden of inputting dozens of essays. The process should be openly integrated into assessment procedures, she said, and students would probably need to sign a declaration to demystify the detection process and to allow their essays to be stored for future use.
The software compares assignments with existing material and then colour codes them according to the amount of unoriginal text found. Lecturers can then choose what action to take.
Workshops, training and advice will be available from a centre at Northumbria University, which will seek to promote good practice.
The National Union of Students said it was opposed to plagiarism and cheating but it would not support measures that eroded trust between lecturer and student.
National president Mandy Telford said: "Universities must recognise the key role collaboration plays in a successful learning process and ensure that full information is provided so all students are fully aware of what is acceptable and what is not."