The government has been accused of undermining the higher education sector through its tough approach to UK immigration.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, a group which represents British universities, highlighted the risk that recent statements made by senior government ministers pose to the multibillion-pound market represented by foreign students.
By calling for a crackdown on “bogus students”, Ms Dandridge claimed that ministers have given the impression that international students are no longer welcome in the country. She added that they are being driven to competing economies, such as those of Canada, the US and Australia.
The chief executive remarked: "We are concerned about the language and the atmosphere that is being created, not least because it plays very, very badly internationally.
"Whatever the intentions of the politicians are ... every time these sorts of comments are made by the home secretary or others it does have a potentially very damaging impact internationally."
Theresa May, the home secretary, is implementing a tougher approach to vetting international students and plans to have consular staff interview more than 100,000 prospective students to try and prevent bogus applicants entering the system.
This strict approach comes after new UK immigration laws introduced tighter working restrictions on students from outside the European Economic Area.
Data suggests that the changes in approach have had a noticeable impact on the numbers of students showing an interest in study in Britain. In fact, according to the Office for National Statistics figures from November 2012, there was a 26 per cent drop in the number of UK visas issued for study in the year to September 2012.
Ms Dandridge added that anecdotal evidence implies that that the trend is set to accelerate. She observed: “What universities are reporting to us [is that] they are seeing significant drops, particularly from India, from Pakistan and now from China and Saudi Arabia.
“These are countries that send large numbers and also they are important countries in terms of international engagement and industry engagement, so we want to be promoting and fostering relations with them, not erecting barriers.”