British higher education is losing millions of pounds a year thanks to "intimidating" and "mystifying" visa procedures that have put off thousands of fee-paying overseas students.
A nationwide survey has revealed that student visa applicants are often subjected to "inappropriate and intimate" questioning by British embassy officials, who frequently refuse applications for "ill-informed or fatuous" reasons.
Interview reports have shown that would-be students are regularly victims of an "entrapment mentality", being "almost tricked into giving doubtful responses".
As a result, 83 per cent of universities, further and higher education colleges and English-language colleges claim to have lost prospective students because of visa difficulties last year.
Of the visa applicants surveyed, 85 per cent said they had had difficulties, and 78 per cent of institutions said visa problems had delayed student arrivals.
More than half of institutions thought visa procedures were not improving, and nearly a third thought they were getting worse.
The survey findings, contained in a report soon to be published by the United Kingdom Council for Overseas Student Affairs, may embarrass ministers preparing to launch a top-level campaign to encourage more overseas students to apply for places on British higher education courses.
Prime minister Tony Blair and education and employment secretary David Blunkett will head the campaign, expected to be announced soon, to give British institutions an edge over rivals in ten global priority areas. Some of the target countries, including China, India and Russia, are identified in the UKCOSA report as the top trouble spots for student visa problems.
The most common problem cited was that of entry clearance officers, who are based in British embassies worldwide to assess visa applications, doubting a student's intention to leave the UK at the end of their studies.
The government's promotions campaign is expected to include plans to make visa procedures clearer and less bureaucratic, but UKCOSA says this may not be enough. It says immigration rules make it too easy for officials to claim not to be satisfied that a student intends to return home.
A spokesman for the British Council, which wants a fast-track visa system introduced, said: "These kinds of perspectives reflect the very poor reputation that the visa system has. I would suspect a lot of the perceived flaws are as much to do with students not understanding the system as the system itself not working. We have to do more to make it simpler and more transparent."