Colleges have defended their international work after immigration minister Damian Green suggested last week that they were not attracting "the brightest and the best".
Mr Green raised the spectre of a further tightening of restrictions on FE colleges recruiting foreign students after saying that student visas should focus on people attending elite university courses.
"It is beyond dispute that Britain's universities contain some of the best in the world and that they need to be competing for the world's best students," he said. "The immigration system should help them in this. But this does not mean that every student visa issued is necessarily benefiting Britain.
"Most people think foreign students come here to attend our top universities and of course these are the students we want to attract. But the real picture of the parts of Britain's education system that attract foreign students is much more varied.
"It includes the publicly funded further education sector, private vocational colleges, language schools, independent schools and many partnerships between higher and further educational institutions. The foreign students attending these various establishments may, or frankly may not be, the brightest and the best."
Students formed the single largest group given visas to the UK, with 288,000 in the last 12 months, he said, amounting to more than half the total immigration. Many who had arrived in 2004 were still in the UK five years later. Only half of foreign students were studying at degree level or above.
John Mountford, the Association of Colleges' international director, said that foreign students brought colleges pound;40 million of income a year. Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College even won a Queen's Award for Industry for its international work.
"We feel as a sector that we have the best college system in the world and we are delighted that a number of international students want to come to study with us," he said. "The message coming through is that the focus for international recruitment should be at university level. If they are looking to limit the number of students coming in, it would be better to focus on highly trusted institutions like colleges rather than focusing on their level of study."
He said Mr Green's comments also came before the effects of a previous crackdown on bogus students have been seen: institutions are now required to sponsor their students' visa applications and monitor their attendance.
Far from being a burden on the UK, Mr Mountford said foreign students at all levels contributed pound;8 billion to the economy. "Our feeling is that foreign students aren't part of the problem, they're part of the solution. From an economic point of view, they should be encouraged," he said.
Colleges also argue that they assist in recruitment at university level, with foreign students preparing for university entrance in the UK before progressing on to their degree.
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