Bogus students facing global crackdown
"Unscrupulous" recruitment agents who bring bogus overseas students into the UK are being targeted in an international initiative.
The British Council has for the first time brought together countries including the UK, the US and Australia to try to keep out such students.
The council says there are "widespread concerns" about dishonest agents.
Universities say the majority of agents are legitimate and are an important way of finding overseas students.
Rogue agents are accused of falsifying documents and helping people to get around the student visa system, the rules of which immigration authorities in the UK have tried to tighten.
It is a problem that raises concerns about illegal immigration and the possibility of people with terrorist intentions coming into the country, although in many cases it is the students themselves who are being duped.
A meeting of immigration and education authorities in London, the first of its kind, is intended to co-ordinate a multi-national response.
Higher education has become a globalised market and the British Council says there needs to be an international approach to tackling fraud.
In particular there are concerns about agents fraudulently sending students from Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan and parts of Africa.
Legitimate agents recruit for a commission, which can be worth several thousands of pounds per student, bringing overseas students to universities, colleges and language schools.
Four out of five UK universities use agents, says the British Council, with "many thousands" of individual agents working in this expanding business.
The British Council says that some dishonest agents advertise courses as a route to migration and claim to "guarantee" success in admission tests.
Agents have also cheated honest applicants, who are misled into paying for courses at bogus colleges, which are nothing like the places that agents have described.
The British Council says agents have been caught passing off "two-room colleges as prestigious institutions".
And, in some cases, overseas students have arrived with no-one to meet them, and nowhere to stay when they discover the colleges do not exist.
There are also concerns about "multi-national businesses which open up money-making colleges and then close them down, leaving students stranded".
An inaugural meeting of English-speaking countries brought together representatives of the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the Irish Republic.
The UK Border Agency was among the representatives from the UK.
Pat Killingley, the British Council's director of higher education, said competitor countries need to work together.
"We have common interests - we've all built up reputations for quality in higher education that we want to protect," she said.
Universities and colleges could not operate without agents, she said, and their role was likely to increase.
As such, she said, it was vital that the small proportion of dishonest agents were stopped.
Countries will share information about dishonest agents and they will try to support legitimate agents, she said.
There could also be a code of behaviour for what remains a largely-unregulated market.
Financial pressures have made overseas students an increasingly important source of income for universities and the wider economy.
In the UK, overseas students are worth £5.3bn each year, according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
In Australia, there had been a concerted drive to recruit more overseas students - but there has now been a shift to tighten entry rules.
In the United States, there have been ethical concerns about the use of agents.
Reports in the US have claimed that Chinese students have paid thousands of dollars each to agents to get a university place - with the university also paying a fee to the agents.
There are about 200,000 students from India and China alone in the United States - out of a total of about 670,000 overseas students.
Last year, the UK government began to introduce a tougher visa system for overseas students.
This included a more rigorously-vetted list of approved education providers, which aimed to prevent bogus colleges.
But instead of falling, the numbers of student visas issued in some countries rose sharply.
Between April and September 2009, 35,300 UK student visas were issued in India, compared with 20,294 in the same period the previous year.
In Nepal, for these months, the number of student visas surged from 369 the previous year to 6,658.
In response to this increase, earlier this year all applications for student visas for the UK from north India, Bangladesh and Nepal were temporarily suspended.
There were 351,000 applications for UK student visas in 2008-09 - with 236,000 visa being issued.
The number of overseas students in higher education in 2008-9 in the UK is 251,310. This represents an increase of almost 50,000 in four years.
But Universities UK emphasised the usefulness of well-run agents - and said "tighter rules should help ensure that genuine international students and UK institutions are not duped".
"Universities are experienced in looking out for fraudulent activities and aim to have good channels of communication across the sector and with partners in the UK and overseas, to identify and tackle problems," said a spokesman.
"Sharing information is key to tackling fraud, and consideration is being given to further enhancing communications across the sector and with relevant partners."