Gareth Thomas, the Labour shadow universities minister, said there was “growing concern” that the new English language requirements that came into force in April would have a devastating impact on students already offered places for 2011-12 based on the previous rules.
In a letter to David Willetts, the universities and science minister, Mr Thomas writes that thousands of overseas postgraduate and undergraduate students had accepted places based on entry criteria first advertised more than a year ago.
These criteria were based on the belief that universities would have “discretion” in how to assess English language competency, but Mr Thomas writes that since the changes, many in the sector believe they will now have “very little” freedom to make such judgements.
“As a result, offers of places made to undergraduate and postgraduate applicants may have to be withdrawn as these offers were made on the back of criteria for entry now no longer acceptable to the UK Border Agency,” he writes.
As well as the letter to Mr Willetts, Mr Thomas has also tabled a series of parliamentary questions to ministers on the subject.
His office claims in a statement that some universities think that as many as 33 per cent of postgraduate student numbers for 2011-12 may be at risk.
“If places have to be withdrawn, this will cause serious and significant problems for universities and for the reputation of British higher education. The government needs to sort this out urgently,” Mr Thomas said.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: “We are aware of this situation and understand the difficulties some universities may find themselves in, and we are in touch with the UK Border Agency with a view to finding a workable solution for the sector.”
She added that the new rules package struck a “sensible balance between our desire to attract aspiring students and operate a robust migration system that denies entry to people with ulterior motives from coming here".