British institutions have a recruitment mountain to climb if they are to hit targets for overseas students set last year by prime minister Tony Blair.
The campaign will fail unless universities "sharpen up their act" abroad, international officers and student groups warned this week.
Unpublished figures from the Education Counselling Service, the marketing arm of the British Council, show that to achieve the target of 50,000 extra overseas students by 2004-05, British universities will have to quadruple their present rate of increase in numbers.
From 1996-97 to 1999-2000 the number of overseas students on higher education courses in Britain rose from 110,000 to just over 120,500 - an increase of about 9.5 per cent. Institutions must find another 10,000 students a year over the next four years if they are to meet targets.
The ECS put on a brave face this week, predicting that the British Council's Pounds 5 million "branding" campaign, launched this year in eight countries to promote British higher and further education, would help bring about substantial gains in recruitment.
Piera Gerard, ECS deputy director, said significant growth had been achieved over the past year in China, India, Japan, Brazil, Hong Kong and Russia, although recruitment in Malaysia and Singapore had continued to fall.
But she warned: "The campaign can create awareness and interest, but we need institutions to increase their marketing activity to convert that into students."
Ministers are encouraging institutions to take a more active role in the move towards the globalisation of higher education.
But Clive Saville, chief executive of the United Kingdom Council for Overseas Student Affairs, which held a conference on overseas recruitment this week, said the government's timetable for recruitment was unrealistic.
He noted that an independent report commissioned by the British Council had shown that universities' overseas marketing activities were generally poor and it would take time and investment to improve them.
"Institutions are going to have to sharpen up, both in the way they market themselves and in the design of their product," he said.
Overseas student recruiters at Leeds University warned that the branding exercise could backfire if institutions failed to ensure they were providing a quality learning experience. A survey of 1,000 international students in Leeds revealed that positive feedback from friends was one of the most effective means of promotion.
David Baker, head of the international office at Leeds, said there had been a "disappointing reaction" to the branding exercise from universities. He said the point of branding was to understand customers' needs rather than taking the product-driven approach that still dominated.
"The brand will fail if this culture does not change," he said.
John McKenzie, director of international development at the London Institute, said institutions had to establish a strong presence and put together attractive support packages for students.
Meanwhile, student advisers have been warning that an immigration clampdown on Chinese students is threatening to hamper recruitment in the fastest growing higher education market.
The ECS figures show that marketing in China reaped the biggest increase in recruitment last year, with a 66 per cent rise in numbers from 2,961 to 4,910.
Suzanne Marshall, coordinator of the Osprey International Student Advisory Council in Edinburgh, said the prime minister's initiative, which included making visa application easier, was being hindered by immigration officials. "There seems to be a lack of communication between the Foreign Office, the education department and the immigration and nationality directorate," she said.