"Nowadays, everything can be settled using money." With these nonchalant words, Zhang, a Chinese sixth-form student taking his A levels in Oxford, explained how simple it is to fix a place at university for unqualified students.
"Besides Cambridge and Oxford universities, all other universities are guaranteed," he claimed. "I know a friend who already got into Oxford Brookes and is doing his first-year business degree now."
The Times Higher was acting on a source's allegations that there is a flourishing English market fixing university places for Chinese students.
Posing as "Jenny" - a Chinese national about to drop out of her A-level courses at a private London college - our researcher started making inquiries.
We were told that Zhang was the "middleman" who knew the right people to talk to.
Speaking in her native Mandarin, Jenny said: "I heard from my friend that it is possible to get an unconditional offer for a university degree without having A-level results. Is that true?"
"Yes, it is possible," Zhang replied. He would make some calls.
Two days later, Jenny received a call from the fixer, "Mandi". "So you want to get to LSE," he said. "You first pay me £3,000." A further £4,000 would be paid on delivery of her acceptance letter from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service - which he claimed he could get by December.
He assured her: "I have worked with this for three years already... No problem, I have made it work for hundreds of students already." He claimed that he had got students into Birmingham University, the London School of Economics and Oxford Brookes University.
Mandi said he was based in the Headington area of Oxford and knew Cantonese, which is spoken in Hong Kong and Guangdong province.
But he was coy about exactly how his scam worked. Zhang had claimed that Mandi had English contacts who could access and manipulate the applications system. But Ucas said this week that it doubted this was possible as it has sophisticated computer equipment, safe from external attacks and with full audit facilities that would spot any interference in the application process.
But the limited explanation Mandi did offer is simple and plausible. He told Jenny that he would provide fake UK A-level results - "the certificate is real, but the results are false", he explained. Declining to reveal which exam boards his fakes purported to come from, he said, "It depends who deals with your case. We try to randomise this so that it's not obvious all forgery comes from the same source."
Universities are more vulnerable to fake certificates from overseas students, as they fall outside the checks in the central admissions system for home students.
The Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents all the exam boards, said exam certificates had an array of high-tech security features.
Edexcel, for example, said its A-level certificates feature heat-sensitive colour marks, holograms and watermarks that make them impossible to copy using scanners or photocopies. Edexcel said universities had even been supplied with ultraviolet scanners to check security features.
But counterfeit certificates were in circulation, the JCQ conceded - it is seeking an injunction to stop one forger and is working with the police and the trading standards service to clamp down on the market.
Peter Leon Quinn, who was exposed offering fake A-level and degree certificates over the internet by The Times Higher in 1997, was handed a 12-month prison sentence this week for ignoring a court injunction that forbade him from supplying fakes.
It is not impossible to obtain original certificates, but the exam boards say it is unlikely.
When asked to prove that he could deliver on his promise, Mandi arranged for one of his satisfied customers to contact Jenny. Within hours, she received a call from "Andy".
"I'm already studying in Oxford Brookes first year," he said. "I only have IELTS (the basic British Council international language teaching qualification)."
Andy said he paid Mandi about £4,000. He received a certificate with his A-level results that the university accepted.
The Times Higher passed Andy's real name and Ucas application details to Oxford Brookes.
The university said this week: "We recently received details that have helped us to verify information on application forms and identify potentially fraudulent applications.
"We maintain rigour at all times in our applications process for all students, including those applying from overseas. In the case of international students, this process is particularly rigorous because they are also required to comply with visa regulations, which includes evidence that they have a university place and the funds to complete their course."
Birmingham University confirmed that it had already excluded several students who had obtained places on its courses fraudulently - although it is unclear whether these students are past customers of Mandi or part of different scams.
The LSE said: "We take verification very seriously and will follow up all information about these allegations to ensure our processes are as robust as possible."
Extracts from a conversation between The Times Higher 's researcher and "Mandi" the "fixer".
Times Higher : Due to a personal problem, I'm thinking of dropping out of A-level courses at sixth-form college.
Mandi : So, you want to get into LSE?
Times Higher : That's right...
Mandi : You first pay me £3,000. What was the amount Zhang mentioned to you?
Times Higher : £7,000. So I'll pay the rest of £4,000 once I receive the offer letter?
Mandi : Yes, that's right.
Times Higher : Can I ask if there's anyone who already successfully gained access to university through this?
Mandi : I've worked with this for three years already.
Times Higher : It won't be a problem, right?
Mandi : No problem, I have made it work for hundreds of students already.
Times Higher : My father is worried. How do you do this? Will they find out I haven't got any qualifications?
Mandi : No, they won't. Because we'll make it look very real.
Times Higher : Do you mean you'll make a fake certificate?
Mandi : Not really. The certificate is real but the results are false.
Extracts from a conversation between The Times Higher 's researcher and "Andy", a first-year undergraduate at Oxford Brookes who The Times Higher has identified and matched with a Universities and Colleges Admissions Service unconditional offer.
Times Higher : Have you already successfully gained access to university through (Mandi)?
Andy : Yes, exactly, I'm already studying in Oxford Brookes, first year.
Times Higher : What sort of qualifications do you have?
Andy : I only have IELTS result. Then it's all through Ucas.
Times Higher : So how was the process with Mandi?
Andy : At first you pay him the deposit and once you receive the offer letter, you pay up the balance.
Times Higher : Will there be any problem?
Andy : I didn't face any problem. It was pretty smooth.
Times Higher : Will he give you the original A-level results?
Andy : Yes, he gave it to me.
Times Higher : Just in case they still want to check the results.
Andy : Oh yes, my university did ask for it.
Times Higher : Is there anyone else you know who has got into university through this?
Andy : My friend went through this with me... we got into the same university but different course.
Exclusions as scam is uncovered