The British Phonographic Industry (BPI) has sent letters and an information brochure to academic institutions warning them that unlicensed internet copying is a breach of contract and could lead to criminal sanctions.
Peter Jamieson, BPI chief executive, said that it was in universities' best interests to protect their computer systems. "The internet has revolutionised the way people have access to information, but this positive development should not be at the expense of copyright," he said.
The BPI initiative is part of an international clampdown which has seen universities in Australia and the US take action against students who were found with illegal musical material on their computers.
While university chiefs have advised institutions to put proper guidelines in place, a National Union of Students spokesman said it is unreasonable for the record industry to pick on students.
"Downloading music is not something we endorse, but isolating students is unfair because it is such a universal issue. It's especially unfair when you look at what students bring to the record industry as a whole. It is students who break new bands and go to their live gigs while everybody else goes to watch people like
S Club break-up on stage."