The Foreign Office is to investigate complaints that visa officials are blocking genuine overseas students' entry into the United Kingdom.
The Association of Colleges has complained that entry clearance officers in British embassies are withholding would-be students' visas on the basis of educational judgements.
The AoC says officers should not make decisions based on their perception of a student's suitability for a course when he or she has been accepted by a college. It says the officers' decisions mean the sector is losing fee income and they are undermining the drive, backed by prime minister Tony Blair, to attract 75,000 extra overseas students to Britain by 2005.
It is collecting for FO investigation examples from its members of cases where officers have refused access to overseas students on what the association considers spurious grounds.
The AoC told members that at a recent meeting with the FO, "the offer was made to the AoC by a senior FO official to look at specific examples of where colleges feel the reasons for refusal, to what they believe are genuine applicants, have been less then satisfactory. Of particular interest are cases where refusal appears to have been made on educational grounds - outside the remit of entry clearance officers."
A survey last year found that overseas students at three out of five colleges had faced problems in obtaining visas from UK officials in their home countries. A report from the UK Council for Overseas Student Affairs in May 1999 found that universities and colleges were losing millions in overseas fees, thanks to "intimidating" and "mystifying" visa procedures. Visa officials were refusing applications for "ill-informed and fatuous" reasons.
But the officials have expressed concern that some colleges are becoming targets for illegal immigrants posing as students. In documents obtained by The THES, an entry clearance officer at the British High Commission in Sri Lanka warned several colleges that hopeful immigrants are targeting colleges.
Visa official Rob Ostler told Melton Mowbray College: "I have always been of the opinion that colleges like yourselves are targeted by bogus students. You offer low-level courses to people with low qualifications and poor English. These people fit the exact profile of the likely immigrant. You should not be surprised to find that if you accept people who have shown no great aptitude in their studies in Sri Lanka, they will possibly have little commitment to studies in the UK."
An FO spokesman said that it was happy to cooperate with the AoC and would look at any evidence it produces. It is working with the British Council to ensure that genuine applications are processed quickly and that the process does not act as a deterrent.