Legitimate overseas students are being prevented from studying in the UK because visa officials have adopted a "siege mentality" in the face of bogus colleges, a senior Labour peer has warned.
Lord Tomlinson, chairman of the Association of Independent Higher Education Providers, said bogus colleges were providing an "easy vehicle" for illegal immigration, but an official backlash was damaging the legitimate private higher education sector and hampering government objectives.
"The good suffer with the bad. It encourages entry-clearance officers overseas to think that it is their job to stop people coming to the private sector," he said.
"It creates a siege mentality in some of the entry-clearance officers who have two pressures on them. On one hand, you have things such as the Prime Minister's Initiative saying, 'let's get as many people as possible into the welcoming environment of UK education', and, on the other, the Daily Mail-led campaign about illegal immigration."
Lord Tomlinson said there was "a hell of a lot of bad" in the private sector but also "some of the best practice ... Equally, there's a lot of good practice in the state sector but also a fair amount that doesn't pass too close a scrutiny."
Neil Kemp, a former director of Education UK at the British Council and adviser to the AIHEP, has echoed Lord Tomlinson's concerns.
Speaking to an audience of private-sector higher education providers this month, he said: "If you do a Google search on a mix of words such as 'London', 'business', 'computing' ... and 'school', you get thousands of hits. Some are absolutely fine ... but not all are what they seem."
Dr Kemp gave an example of one online "university" that offered a distance-learning doctorate for $5,500 (£2,800), but if participants sign up for a "fast-track" option they are charged just $199.
Lord Tomlinson, speaking to Times Higher Education before he opened a £30 million centre for private provider Study Group International in Brighton last week, backed a Home Office task force working to tighten the enrolment and monitoring of overseas students and to tackle bogus colleges.
"Once these measures are introduced in January 2009, hundreds of these colleges, which until now have been easy vehicles for illegal immigration, will be required to be accredited," he said.
"Without accreditation they will ... not be able to secure visas for their students," Lord Tomlinson said.
The director of a bogus college that conned international students has been convicted of offences under the Trade Descriptions Act.
An investigation was launched into LBT College of London Ltd, based in Whitechapel, East London, after a student travelled from India, having paid £4,500 to study there.
Student Sounak Halder contacted trading standards to alert them to false claims made on the college's website, which said that students would be working towards accredited qualifications and described LBT's facilities inaccurately.
In fact, the college was not accredited and its "library" consisted of an almost empty bookcase and a few computers, one of which did not work.
Snaresbrook Crown Court heard that eight or nine complaints had been made about the college, but only one student took formal action, leading to its director Polash Rahman being convicted of two offences.
Judge John Rafferty told Mr Rahman, 31: "These qualifications weren't worth the paper they were written on." Mr Rahman was ordered to pay £12,500 in fines and costs.