The Home Office is considering a move, which would cut international student numbers at UK universities by nearly half, reports the Education Guardian. The proposal is being greeted with much dismay by university leaders, who say some good overseas applicants are already being refused visas on grounds deemed insufficient by vice chancellors.

The home secretary, Amber Rudd, pledged a sharp reduction in international student numbers at the Conservative party conference in October this year. The measures proposed to achieve this include tougher visa rules for “lower quality” universities and courses. But senior university sources are warning that cuts to international student admission could be far more severe than expected. They say they have gained access to Home Office plans that model slashing international student numbers, with one option to cut the current 300,000 to 170,000 a year.

The Home Office says a rumour it had modelled even more severe cuts of two-thirds, to 100,000 students a year, is “categorically untrue”. The rumour was discussed at private seminars last month by leading figures at the government’s Higher Education Funding Council for England.

International students contribute more than £10.7bn to the UK economy, according to Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ umbrella group. The head of one leading university, who asked not to be named, denounced the potential scale of the cuts as “insane”, adding: “politics is trumping economics”.

Prof Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, agreed commenting:

 “The Home Office seems to have decided that cutting international students is the only way of delivering the manifesto target of getting net migration down to the tens of thousands. But it doesn’t address people’s concerns about immigration. The problems people are seeing on the ground are certainly not caused by international university students or staff.”

Sir Keith Burnett, of Sheffield University, who accompanied Theresa May on a recent trade delegation to India, says:

“If we genuinely want to be open to the world and a global leader in free trade, we can only do so by welcoming talent. This cannot simply be our own assessment; international students need to feel welcome and that accessing the UK to study and for a period of work experience is easy. Even a hint that students are unwelcome and they will go elsewhere.”