Colleges Scotland has called on the UK government to review its policies on international educational recruitment after figures revealed that the number of overseas students has dropped dramatically in the past four years.
The body's chief executive, John Henderson, told TESS that the number of international students in Scottish colleges had fallen by almost a third, from 2,806 in 2008-9 to 1,879 in 2012-13.
According to the Scottish government, international students contribute about pound;441 million to the economy annually. Colleges have had their funding cut significantly in recent years and it was hoped that international student recruitment could help to counteract this.
Beyond the financial benefits, Mr Henderson said that strong international recruitment brought other advantages to Scottish students and the country as a whole.
Susan Walsh, principal of Glasgow Clyde College, agreed. Although everyone recognised that in times of challenging public funding "every alternative source of income needs to be explored", she said, "having international students in college is about more than finances".
Overseas recruitment was about "internationalisation, which is more than international students studying in colleges", Ms Walsh said. "Scottish students make contacts across the globe and gain greater understanding of other cultures and races, which in a shrinking world can only be to the good."
According to Mr Henderson, the UK government had made it more difficult for colleges to recruit international students.
In 2012, TESS reported that six colleges lost their United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) highly trusted sponsor status, which allowed them to recruit internationally. One of them, Cardonald College, has since merged with Anniesland and Langside Colleges to form Glasgow Clyde College.
"The UKBA debacle caused enormous damage to the reputation of Scottish education in many countries abroad," Ms Walsh said. She added that although colleges appreciated the challenges of protecting against inappropriate immigration, the UKBA's response at the time had been "an excellent example of a sledgehammer being used to crack a very small walnut".
"What made it worse was the seeming intransigence of UKBA and their unwillingness to enter reasoned discussions," Ms Walsh said. "Here's hoping someone sees sense and we are able to return Scottish college education back to its rightful place in the opinions of our international partners."
Mr Henderson said that one way to make it easier for colleges to recruit students from around the world would be to exclude them from immigration targets. This would not compromise thorough border controls, nor would it open the doors to illegal immigration, he stressed.
"I would argue that they come here for an education, and they will go back and be friends of Scotland," he said.
A previous policy that allowed students to remain in the country to work after graduating could also be brought back, he said, "because it allows them to contribute to the economy".
City of Glasgow College has one of the highest numbers of international students in Scotland. A spokesman for the institution said that income from these students - who come from dozens of countries - was estimated at approximately pound;2.2 million in 2014 alone.
He said the college welcomed "any moves to make it easier for legitimate international students to study in the UK".
A Scottish government spokeswoman said that efforts to attract the best international talent to higher and further education were being undermined by the UK government's position on immigration.
"The new regional structure of the college sector and its strong links to universities will create greater opportunities for those looking to study here, whatever their country of origin," she said. "Scotland's needs are different from those of the rest of the UK and independence would allow us control over an immigration system that meets our social and economic needs."
A UK Home Office spokesman said that the government welcomed the "brightest and the best" students to the UK but that the student visa regime it had inherited "was open to widespread abuse, particularly in the private further education sector. It did nothing to protect legitimate students from substandard sponsors."
He added: "Our reforms have curbed this abuse by closing bogus colleges, making the application process more rigorous and imposing more rules on colleges to improve course quality."