8,450 students suspected of copying

Almost 8,500 students were suspected of copying in their university applications last year.

New figures show that the number of people suspected of plagiarising their personal statements has more than tripled in a year.

In 2011, 8,458 university applicants were flagged up as having similarities in the personal statements, compared to 2,450 in 2010, according to figures obtained from admissions body Ucas by Radio 4's You and Yours programme through a Freedom of Information request. In 2008, 3,098 applicants had their statements flagged.

As part of the application process, would-be students are asked to write a personal statement containing their achievements, skills and any information they feel will make them stand out from the crowd.

Ucas uses specialist software called CopyCatch to check personal statements against others in the system for similarities. The sharp rise in the number of flagged applicants between 2010 and 2011 was down to the introduction of a more stringent threshold for picking up these similarities, Ucas said.

Any statements that are flagged up are checked, and that information can be passed on to the university a student is applying to. It is down to the institution to decide how to deal with the situation, which can range from putting a warning on the student's application or asking for the statement to be re-written, to doing nothing, You and Yours found.

Ucas said that the number of applicants that were flagged last year represented 1% of all applications. Three in ten were applicants outside of the European Union (EU).

Andrea Robertson, director of customer operations at Ucas, told You and Yours it had set up the detection system after requests from universities. "Back in 2007 we did have an approach from institutions to say they felt they were receiving a number of applications where at least some of the personal statement being supplied was being copied from sources available on the internet, but also in those days obviously, even four years ago, from written sources or even copied from other applicants."

Ms Robertson highlighted the high numbers of applicants flagged from outside the EU, saying it was necessary to bear in mind that for some applicants, English is not their first language, so it may have been useful for them to look at other sources for guidance.

She said: "It is up to universities and colleges entirely for their own policies as to how they actually treat the applicants. A number do have some very specific policies in place."