A government official has warned UK universities that future overseas students must "come here to study and go home", prompting claims that thousands of students will shun the UK for nations where they can gain work experience.
University and college representatives at the British Council's Education UK Partnership conference, held in Edinburgh last week, heard from the UK Border Agency.
Phil Taylor, its regional director for Scotland and Northern Ireland, discussed the government's long-awaited consultation, which was set for publication on 7 December, on the new visa system for students coming from outside the European Economic Area (EEA).
The government seems likely to shut down visas for those studying on courses below degree level - but universities have warned that about a third of their overseas students progress from lower-level courses taken in Britain.
Answering questions, Mr Taylor said: "The point I have to emphasise is that the government's policy is if you come here to study, you come here to study. You do not come here to work. The principle is study, and the emphasis is: you come here to study and you go home."
Several university international officers pointed out that nations such as Canada are bidding to attract overseas students by offering time-limited rights to work and residence.
James Richardson, director of the University of Hull's international office, asked Mr Taylor: "Does the Home Secretary (Theresa May) appreciate that the possibility of a student staying on and working after their studies is one of the key attractions of coming to the UK?"
Mr Taylor replied that Ms May "understands that very well, but the Home Secretary also understands the platform on which she and her government were elected into power."
At a time of rising unemployment among British graduates "it is a very difficult argument for a politician to say we are going to have a system of education where we will allow foreign nationals who are in the UK graduating to come here and compete for work", Mr Taylor said.
Mr Richardson argued that "markets like India are going to react very negatively to these changes", with "thousands" of Indian students opting for the US instead of the UK.
Mr Taylor also said the focus of the new system would be allowing entry to students on "higher-level courses and those offered by highly trusted sponsors. Tougher entry criteria, such as English-language competence, are being considered. Students wishing to extend their studies will have to show evidence of academic progression."
He said the government is "not proposing to impose a limit on students from non-EEA areas admitted to the UK", but it would nevertheless "expect to see a substantial reduction in numbers through targeted measures".