The rules for student visas into the UK are to be much tougher – after fears that this route of entry is being used dishonestly.
Home Secretary Theresa May said student visas were being abused and “too many were here to work and not to study”.
She announced plans to cut the number of student visas by up to 80,000 – about a quarter of the current numbers.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper warned that rules must not damage an industry worth £5bn a year.
Mrs May told the House of Commons that the misuse of student visas had become a “symbol of a broken and abused immigration system”.
Tightening rules to stop false applications would be “in the best interests of legitimate students,” she said.
The tougher rules will include a requirement for students to be able to speak English.
Mrs May said she wanted to end the situation where would-be students arrived at UK airports unable to even describe the courses they were about to begin.
There will also be tighter regulations on allowing the dependents of students to join them in the UK – and less flexibility in the number of years that overseas students can spend in the UK after courses are finished.
In response to concerns that students visas are being misused by economic migrants, there will be limits on the hours of paid work which overseas students will be allowed to carry out.
Universities had previously expressed fears about the loss of overseas students from tighter visa rules – but Universities UK said that their concerns had been taken into account.
Many of the restrictions are targeted at students in private colleges – rather than universities.
Language colleges and providers of pre-university entry courses had warned of the damage to their businesses if visa rules make it difficult for legitimate students to enter the UK.
But Mrs May told MPs that such “pathway” courses into universities would be protected, if universities acted as sponsors to students.
“We will need to look closely at the finer detail, but they have listened to our concerns about pathway courses into universities and the need for the language requirement to be set at a realistic level that will not deter good students,” said Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia.
The Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper warned that the plan was being driven by the need to meet political promises about cutting immigration numbers, rather than to improve the visa system.
She said that Mrs May should act “in the interests of a sensible, controlled migration policy, rather than taking risks with an important export industry for the sake of promises she knows she can’t keep”.
The proposals from the government are the latest attempt to find a way to stop false applications without deterring legitimate students, who have become an important source of funding for UK universities and colleges.
There has been a long-standing problem with bogus colleges, set up to get around visa rules under the pretence of offering courses.
Despite repeated efforts to tighten the rules, there are still concerns about the misuse of the visa system by self-regulated, private colleges.
There have been 64 colleges which have had their right to sponsor overseas students withdrawn, since the current regulations were introduced.
Last week the Home Affairs Select Committee recommended that the government should abandon plans to raise the level of English required to gain a visa.
UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “The government’s student visa plans are short-sighted and risk sending out the worrying message that the UK is closed for business.”