TONY Blair has called for a 100 per cent increase in the number of foreign students coming into UK further education colleges - a further 25,000 students by 2005.
The fee-paying students would bring in pound;200 million per annum in new export earnings.
In addition the Prime Minister wants 50,000 international students to study at UK universities, to increase the country's market-share compared to the USA, Australia and Canada. This would earn the UK pound;500m per annum.
Mr Blair has asked the Department for Education and Employment to establish a high-level steering group to develop a strategy for attracting more international (non-European Union) students. As well as providing income for institutions the strategy is intended to increase the country's standing abroad.
Baroness Blackstone, education and employment minister, told college principals this week that the goal "was to make further education world class, with an international reputation of being the best available anywhere".
Barnaby Shaw, head of the international relations division at the DFEE, has written to the funding councils, the Association of Colleges and the Further Education Development Agency telling them of the initiative.
"The Prime Minister recognises the strategic importance of international students to the UK and the two sectors, and is keen that we do all we can to enhance the UK's international reputation for quality in further and higher education and remove barriers to increased recruitment."
The intention is to develop "a world-class UK education brand and enhanced marketing in priority markets". Visa arrangements will be streamlined to deal with the real and perceived problems that deter students applying to study here.
Procedures will be changed to make it easier for students to work part-time and in vacations, and there will be more scholarships. The letter says that in the four years to 199798 the number of full-time international students from outside the EU grew by 29 per cent. But the economic problems in South-east Asia had temporarily halted that growth.
"The challenge now is to renew that growth and to make the UK the preferred country of choice. We will seek to meet these bold objectives by carefully managed and extensive marketing programmes in the priority markets of the world and through improved marketing in all countries where UK interests are represented.
"Before we go further, we wish to establish that the institutions feel that these targets are appropriate and relate to their own strategic plans for international student recruitment. The final package of support measures and the resources brought to bear by government to support the sector will be determined in the light of the targets set, " wrote Mr Shaw.
Dave Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "As these are very early days in the DFEE initiative, the association is, with others, carefully exploring the implications of involvement on behalf of our members and we shall keep them fully informed."
FEDA research shows that nearly three-quarters of colleges refer to international activity in their strategic plans, although only 40 per cent had a written policy. Outside Europe, colleges' main international links are with the United States and Canada.