The UK is poorly prepared to meet the needs of the more than 800,000 international students expected to flood into its universities and colleges by 2018, experts have warned.
Academic institutions and agencies and government departments need to gear up for the influx and take a more professional approach to "internationalising" higher education in the UK, if the country is to maintain its reputation as a high-quality study destination for students from across the world, they say.
The warnings follow an analysis by the British Council that predicts international student numbers in the UK could triple in 15 years.
Details of the forecast, worked out in collaboration with the council's Antipodean equivalent, IDP Australia, are due to be released in two weeks at a conference in London. They will show that the number of overseas students on UK courses could climb to about 810,000 by 2018-19, and will rise to more than 1 million if off-shore delivery is taken into account.
But the council is concerned that UK institutions have yet to develop the capacity, either in terms of physical space and facilities or human resources, to cope with such numbers without jeopardising academic standards.
Neil Kemp, the council's marketing director, said growing competition from new players such as Japan as well as established rivals America and Australia, meant institutions could no longer sit back and expect to keep their slice of the market.
"The biggest selling point for us is still quality and the employability associated with our qualifications. Anything that undermines those will undermine our overall position," he said.
Colin Gilligan, professor of marketing at Sheffield Hallam University, said his research had found few signs that UK institutions had adopted a significantly more professional approach to marketing themselves to overseas students since he produced a critical analysis of their activities for the British Council four years ago.
Few had taken on board or responded to the changing demands of increasingly media and technology-literate overseas students, or to the expectations of overseas governments that staff and student exchanges should be part of longer-term partnerships.
This had left the UK's standing in the market more vulnerable to the negative impact of events such as the row over immigration or a terror attack.
He said: "The fact that we have not developed a more professional approach does leave us exposed to the impact of such events."
Clive Saville, chief executive of the Ukcosa, the Council for International Education, agreed that UK institutions had been slow to respond to the market. Rapid growth in the number of Chinese students coming to the UK, for instance, could mean there will soon be enough Chinese students to fill three universities, he said.
"Not many people have begun to think about what this means for the nature of UK higher education. These are not marginal student numbers for whom you can just make classes a bit bigger," he said.
Benson Osawe, who chairs the Council for International Students, said overseas students were becoming more demanding. Many expected to be picked up at the airport by their institution and to receive free language tuition.
He said that the introduction of visa extension charges in the UK was seen as a cynical move by international students, and many had decided to take up offers in the US or Canada instead.