FE colleges could lose out on thousands of international students due to stringent new immigration measures that offer preferential treatment to those who study at universities, the Association of Colleges (AoC) has warned.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has confirmed that, as part of the Government's crackdown on bogus students gaining entry to the UK, international students who attend FE colleges will only be allowed to carry out 10 hours of part-time work a week and will have to verify their English-language skills by sitting an external exam.
In contrast, those who study at universities will be allowed to work for up to 20 hours a week, and can have their language ability tested in- house.
The AoC estimates that between 20,000 and 25,000 international students attend FE courses each year, often studying for foundation degrees. They bring in vital income for cash-strapped colleges.
The association fears the move could see foundation degrees "downgraded" in students' perception compared with university courses.
AoC international director John Mountford said the plans put colleges at a major disadvantage.
"It's the fact that one sector is being treated differently to another that we disagree with. They should be treated the same," he said.
"The courses are being slightly downgraded, from an immigrant's point of view. If the Government really backed foundation degrees, international students should be afforded the same immigration status (as those at universities)."
Mr Mountford welcomed the announcement that there will be no limits on student numbers.
"We were concerned there might be a cap on level 3 courses; there had been hints you might need to be studying at level 4 to get a student visa. With the talk about the brightest and best students, there was a veiled suggestion they may have been doing away with below-degree-level programmes," he said.
The decision to insist that all institutions recruiting international students acquire the UK Border Agency's highly trusted sponsor status was also a positive step, he added.
"We have always said that quality needs to be the deciding factor. As a minimum requirement, (making highly trusted status mandatory) will drive grey areas out," Mr Mountford said.
A letter to the AoC signed by BIS ministers Vince Cable and David Willetts said the Government "welcomes and values the success of further education in attracting international students".
"It is becoming a significant area of economic growth in its own right, reflecting the excellent reputation of our colleges abroad," the letter added.
A UK Border Agency spokeswoman said: "We understand the importance of working in terms of integration and providing a small amount of money for students during their studies.
"We are allowing only students attending institutions within the sectors with the lowest levels of non-compliance - the publicly funded FE sector and higher education institutions - the ability to work.
"The difference in working hours reflects the different levels of compliance between these two sectors.
"The new English-language requirement will ensure students coming to study in the UK have a good level of English, in order to be able to complete their course and engage with the wider community."