The British government on Wednesday rejected an appeal by nearly 70 top university heads to review changes to the student visa regime that is likely to put off students from India and other non-EU countries from coming to the UK.
In a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, the university heads noted the economic and other contributions made by international students, and said Britain stood to lose out on the highly competitive international student market unless the recent changes were reviewed.
The university heads said: "In particular we request that international university students be removed from the net migration statistics for policy purposes, bringing us into line with our major competitors".
They added: "We believe that this would help government by creating a clear differentiation between temporary and permanent migration, help universities whose international character is essential to their future success, and help the UK by contributing to economic growth".
Students comprise a major component of overall annual immigration figures.
The recent curbs on student visas are intended to reduce the number of international students as well as prevent abuse, but critics of the curbs say students should not be counted as immigrants since their stay is temporary.
Immigration minister Damian Green, who last week said there had been a 62 per cent fall in student visas issued in the first quarter of 2012, rejected the contention in the letter to Cameron, and said: "Public confidence in statistics will not be enhanced by revising the way the net migration numbers are presented by removing students."
"Students coming to the UK for over a year are not visitors --
"The independent Office for National Statistics is responsible for producing net migration statistics according to the internationally agreed definition of a migrant which is someone entering the country for more than a year," he added.
The university heads told Cameron: "In an age of increasing global mobility, the number of individuals considering a university education abroad is growing rapidly.
In this market for talent -- and export income -- the UK performs exceptionally well, with 9.9 per cent of the total market share in 2009, and export earnings of 7.9 billion pounds".
"International students also play an important role in towns and cities up and down the country, and contribute significantly to local economies.
"There is a clear opportunity to build on this success, with forecasts suggesting that export earnings from this activity could more than double by 2025," they added.
There are already reports of a 30 per cent fall in applications from India, though the exact nature of the fall will not be clear until September-October when the new academic year begins.
The letter to Cameron said: "In this Olympic year, when our universities will be hosting athletics teams and media from across the globe, we urge you to send a clear message that genuine international students are also welcome in, and valued by, the United Kingdom".
Signatories to the letter included Shami Chakrabarti, chancellor of the Oxford Brookes University, and Anil Ruia, chairman of the board of governors, University of Manchester.
Organisations seeking a review of the student visa curbs include the British Council and the Institute for Public Policy Research.