Leading universities in London have dubbed government proposals to dramatically reduce international student visas ‘economic self-harm’.

Joining numerous signatories in a letter from London interest group, London First, universities including UCL, King’s College and the LSE said they were ‘hugely concerned’ by the proposals to cut student visas to the UK by almost half.

They called on government ministers to stop treating students as a ‘soft target’, in an attempt to appease anti-immigration sentiment, and demonstrate that students are welcome.

Reports earlier this month had suggested the Home Office was considering cutting student visas for overseas students from 300,000 to 170,000 under new rules. Home Secretary Amber Rudd, has said she wanted to cut the number of students who came to the UK to study, ‘lower quality’ university degrees.

The number of foreign students coming to the UK in the last 12 months has decreased by 30,000, according to figures seen by the Evening Standard, who reported the story. This drop in numbers has already negatively impacted London’s university sector, which is heavily reliant on the high fees international students pay.

The economic value of international student visas to UK universities is significant. They generate more that £10.7 billion a year nationally, and £2.3 billion in London alone, according to figures from Universities UK, which represents university vice-chancellors.

Mark Hilton of London first commented on the proposals:

“Government shouldn’t be considering any options to halve their numbers — that would be economic self-harm for the UK and could do serious, long-term damage to our global standing. Instead [ministers] should be building on one of the great UK export successes of higher education.”

Other universities, which include City University and the Royal College of Art, were also signatories and wrote in the letter:

“Our international students… help fund our education system, create jobs, share their cultures and build long-term, valuable links to the UK. So it is hugely concerning to read reports of government plans to halve international student numbers. We urge Government to stop looking for a soft target in the debate about immigration targets and instead demonstrate we remain open to talented people.”

The Home Office sought to refute the claim that student number would be drastically reduced, saying:

“Claims the Home Office is modelling cuts to reduce international students are categorically untrue. We want to strengthen the system to support our best universities — and those that stick to the rules — to attract the best talent. At the same time we must make sure that what we offer brings real benefits to this country.”

The Home Office said there has been an eight per cent fall in further education applications and a nine per cent fall in English Language applications in the year to September, but visa applications for the leading Russell Group of universities were up by six per cent.