British boarding schools are estimated to have missed out on hundreds of lucrative Chinese boarders after the Home Office stopped issuing visas to students across a swathe of southern China.
The clampdown began in September last year after the UK Border Agency found irregularities in applications from Fuzhou province.
The Home Office refused to confirm what these were, but it is understood there was a spike in applications sparked by farm workers trying to get into the UK by posing as English-language students.
Boarding schools have been affected by the clampdown, which saw visas stopped at a centre in Fuzhou as well as at visa offices in Guangzhou and Shenzhen in neighbouring Guangdong province.
In November, however, the UK Border Agency said it would accept new applications from students in the three provinces set to attend fee-paying independents.
But Martin Webber, managing director of Academic Asia International, which recruits Chinese students for UK boarding schools, said the damage had been done.
"British boarding schools have come to depend heavily on Chinese students in recent years and many schools have invested heavily in marketing and promotion in the area," he said.
He added he now expected new Chinese boarders hit by the clampdown to have gone elsewhere, such as the US and Australia.
"It has scarred a lot of people," he said. "The message we fear that has come across is that `you can't ever be sure with the UK any more'. Some parents might think that, to be on the safe side, they will send their children to the US instead. The UK is competing with the US and Australia here and it is the long-term impact we are concerned about."
Guangdong province is a key recruiting ground for UK boarding schools. Mr Webber said: "It's the manufacturing heartland of China and a lot of students who study in the UK come from there."
A Home Office spokesman said the clampdown had been enforced as part of a routine checking operation. "We monitor all visa applications to make sure nothing untoward is going on," he said.
Hilary Moriarty, national director of the Boarding Schools Association, played down the number of schools affected.
She added: "Last year, we had just over 1,300 coming to boarding schools from China. If this had affected the whole country, then it would be more serious."
The UK Border Agency visa restrictions are still in place for long-term English courses and all other courses at or below NQF level 3 at the Fuzhou, Guangzhou and Shenzhen visa application centres.
FAR FROM HOME
Number of overseas pupils (non-British, with parents living abroad) in UK private schools:
France - 472
Germany - 2,174
Russia - 1,099
Africa - 1,325
North America - 957
Middle East - 532
Hong Kong - 5,151
China - 2,833
Japan - 494
India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka - 248
Australasia - 172
Source: Independent Schools Council census 2009.