That is the view of Allan Goodman, head of the Institute of International Education, who told Times Higher Education that Britain already had a reputation as a nation that was “anti-foreign students” and had tight controls on student visas.
This meant universities in the country would lose out unless the government made more effort to make clear it welcomed international students.
David Cameron this week pledged to tighten rules on overseas students, shortly after figures showed net migration into the UK rose by half last year.
Responding to the speech, Dr Goodman said: “I’m concerned that the government’s visa and immigration policies are conveying an image to international students of ‘we don’t want you’.
“Generally Britain has a reputation that it is anti-foreign students. And there is a reputation that it is harder to get here as an international student than ever before.
“It’s the government’s prerogative to control numbers but if universities want more international students it will become increasingly hard to persuade them to come.”
He added: “Universities and the government have to speak with one voice. The message from the government is currently unclear. It needs to outline who is welcome, whether there is a cap and whether students count as immigrants.
“In the US there is no ambiguity – students hear that message and the flow of international students into the US is continuing to grow. There is a danger the number in the UK will go down.”
He added that he also disagreed with Mr Cameron’s pledge to toughen English language requirements for overseas students, arguing that this condition should be decided by individual universities rather than outlined in government policy.
“If the government sets very high scores for English before a student can be granted a visa, then the universities will lose out on getting the very people they want to teach and reach,” he said.
However, Dr Goodman welcomed plans to crack down on “sham universities” and said the government has a responsibility to refuse to issue visas to those that are applying to study at these institutions.
He also encouraged more institutions to consider promoting staff who help with a university’s global goals – an idea included in the University of College London’s new global engagement strategy.
“That holistic approach is very important. Just like the government needs to have clear international education policy, universities need to have their own globalisation strategy.”