Mainland students and thousands of other Asians are using fake English language certificates to try to enrol in Australian universities. A huge expansion in foreign student numbers - from 40,000 to 220,000 over the past 10 years - has greatly increased competition for visas, especially among students hoping to become permanent residents after finishing their courses. The forged certificates have supposedly been issued through the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and are said to be available for up to $10,000 on the black market. IELTS officials in Australia are working with police to try to track down crooked migration agents who supply fake certificates. Australian immigration department officials said that on the mainland qiangshou, or 'hired guns', charged fees to sit the English tests. The department's Beijing office identified 1,550 cases of student visa applicants using false documents in 2003. An IELTS spokeswoman in Sydney said cheating and fraud had become so common worldwide that staff running the tests were being trained to detect impostors. Test questions were also limited to one time zone to stop their sale over the internet for use in other cities. According to the spokeswoman, another problem was that many students with genuine certificates still did not speak English well enough to cope with Australian university courses. This was because more than half the universities had set the language score needed for entry too low, she said. Although the IELTS organisation recommended a score of 6.5 for undergraduate entry, 24 of Australia's 40 universities had set the score at six, presumably to attract more customers. But students whose language problems made it difficult for them to succeed at their studies would spread the word at home and this threatened Australia's reputation, she said. Many academics believe an IELTS score of six is inadequate for university study, especially if students obtain this score after practising on a model test. About 80 per cent of international students enrolled with Australian universities are from Asia and many apply in the expectation they will be able to stay on as permanent residents. Mainland students and Chinese from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan comprise about half of all Asians studying for Australian degrees. Dr Bob Birrell, an expert on migration issues at Monash University in Melbourne, estimates that at least half the students enrolled in undergraduate and two-year postgraduate courses in accounting, engineering and IT apply for permanent residency after completing their degrees or diplomas.