By Melissa Jackson
BBC News education reporter
A rise in visa refusals to overseas students is undermining the reputation of UK universities, it is claimed.
Foreign student applications could decline, it is claimed
This has led to a marked slowdown in the number of foreign students applying to study in the UK, it is suggested.
The accusations come from the lobby group Campaigning for Mainstream Universities (CMU) which has told the prime minister of its concerns.
The Foreign Office said it was acting "to ensure only genuine students travel to the UK" and policy had not changed.
But CMU says the Foreign Office's tactics fly in the face of another government policy to encourage overseas students to the UK.
The rate of increase in the number of international students applying to UK universities has fallen markedly this year compared with last, according to the latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas).
There was a fall of more than a quarter in the number of applicants from China.
CMU experts say this is not just due to charges for visas and visa extensions, but evidence that international students, particularly those from China, have been deterred from applying to British universities as a result of visa refusal by British officials.
It fears the "draconian attitude" taken to international students from China will be extended by British officials to India, Pakistan and elsewhere in South East Asia.
CMU represents 31 British higher education institutions.
Its chief executive, Pam Tatlow, said: "The great danger is that other countries will move into this market to take students from these countries."
The Foreign Office received 34,701 visa applications from Chinese students in 2002-03, of which 27,379 were successful and 9,136 (26%) were refused.
In 2003-04 they received 37,577 applications from Chinese students, of which 25,560 were successful and 11,656 (31%) were refused.
This year's figures are not yet available.
"There is not just a financial loss to the universities, but it is damaging to their reputation and to the reputation of British higher education," said Ms Tatlow.
She added: "These students see it as something to enable them to enhance their professional skills in China.
"The knock-on effect is a further decline in applicants."
CMU has evidence from a handful of UK universities where Chinese students have been forced to withdraw applications because their visas have been rejected.
One establishment reported that 57 qualified teachers, who were due to start summer Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course, were refused visas in 2004.
Another university offered an international foundation course which attracted 74 students in 2003.
In 2004, the numbers recruited and admitted to the university declined to 37. Some 80% of the drop was accounted for by visa refusals.
A third university monitored visa refusal rates for students transferring from partner institutions in China and confirmed a 60% increase in visa refusals.
In most cases, the entry clearance officer included in the refusal letter a statement indicating they were not satisfied "you are able and intend to follow such a course".
CMU found that another establishment was having a problem with visa refusals to students from Pakistan and Bangladesh.
"There is a pattern which we think is emerging," said Ms Tatlow.
Criteria for assessing Chinese students have not changed, according to the Foreign Office, whose policy is "to ensure only genuine students travel to the UK", said a spokesman.
He said: "Our clearance officers will only allow students to enter the UK if they meet all the criteria required.
"If applications are refused a student may come back with further supporting documents for us to consider."
However, under new immigration control measures unveiled last week, Home Secretary Charles Clarke announced an end to appeals for those applying from abroad to work or study, although no date has yet been fixed for this to be enforced.
Last October, Ucas said it had caught record numbers of students making false applications to universities.
It said it had detected 1,000 fake qualifications in 2004 - more than twice the usual number.
The cancelled applications included two groups of 200 submitted by people from China and from Pakistan.