Universities engaged in a "closing-down sale" before new visa restrictions were introduced, cutting prices in a bid to fill places, a senior immigration official has claimed.
Jeremy Oppenheim, director for temporary migration at the UK Border Agency, told the Higher Education Futures Forum conference in London last week that there had been a rush of foreign students applying before the new, more stringent rules came in on 21 April.
On 20 April, he said, 11,000 students submitted documents confirming they had been accepted on to a UK course, while just four days later the number fell to 300.
Raising concerns about some marketing practices in the run-up to the changes, Mr Oppenheim said: "We've got evidence of some establishments offering cut-price master's (courses), prices reduced very dramatically, all things that would head to a 'closing-down sale'. We've been interviewing the establishments concerned."
On whether the student visa changes were designed just to tackle bogus colleges or to cut numbers more widely, Mr Oppenheim said: "Numbers do have to come down."
The conference chair, BBC journalist Mike Baker, asked: "So it's not just about tighter security, making sure those who come through are genuine, it's also about reducing numbers and specifically numbers of students." Mr Oppenheim replied: "Yes."
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, told the conference that the reputation of UK higher education abroad had been left "somewhat tattered".
"We need to be aware of the extraordinary damage that the consultation process (on the visa changes) has done internationally," she said. "The myth has developed that the shutters have come down and the UK is not open for business."
Raising a separate concern, Colin Grant, pro vice-chancellor of international relations at the University of Surrey, warned that the understandable focus on public funding cuts could result in universities losing their international focus.
"There is a risk that the sector could fold in on itself and become rather self-obsessed and lose sight of the absolute centrality of internationalisation as core business," he said.
'Stop droning on about how tough it is'
"Let's not keep droning on about how tough it is for universities, let's talk about what we can do to help the country," David Sweeney said.
"That's the way the world is," continued the director for innovation, research and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England. "We're going to get no sympathy and hugs for saying how tough it is."
However, his rallying call at last week's Higher Education Futures Forum went unheeded by many of his fellow speakers.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, predicted "with some weariness" that higher education would continue to be on the front pages of the newspapers for the foreseeable future. She further lamented that it was "the degree of uncertainty that is making all our lives so very difficult".
Paul Wellings, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University and chair of the 1994 Group, also warned of further "turbulence ahead". "We will look back on July 2010 as the high water mark in terms of financing for the sector," he predicted.
Meanwhile, Philip Jones, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, told the conference that recent months had been "traumatic, not just for senior teams and governors, but for staff across institutions".