Universities in the UK have reacted with anger to the government's attempt to raise overseas student visa prices during the election.
Universities UK fears the new increase will make it harder for institutions to recruit overseas. A previous Home Office decision already bumped up charges to renew student visas.
Baroness Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, has protested the Home Office's proposed increase during the election when government departments are supposed to be in "purdah" and not make policy announcements.
UKvisas has given universities and colleges two weeks to respond to its proposal to raise initial visa charges from £36 to £85. Charges to extend a student visa have already been doubled.
Mandie Campbell, head of UKvisas, said the present fee did not reflect the real cost. An increase would allow UKvisas to improve its service to international students and prevent abuse of the student visa route by bogus applicants.
UK Visas said it intends to raise fees from the beginning of July. This will catch many student applicants before the start of the new academic year.
Universities believe the government is being complacent about international student recruitment, which is crucial to university finances. Last year the number of students from outside the UK, including the European Union, rose 9% to 300,055, after a 13.4% increase the previous year. The growing dependence on China was seen in a jump of more than one-third to 47,740 students - with Hong Kong supplying another 10,575 - a long way ahead of the next biggest customer for British higher education, India, whose student numbers rose by more than 2,000 to 14,625.
British universities are banking on a further jump of 20% in overseas student numbers in the next three years, compared with a 4% increase for home and EU-based undergraduates and a 44% rise in income from overseas fees, from £1,125m in 2003/04 to £1,621m in 2007/08.
But Universities UK said that this year 30% of UK universities reported a drop in overseas students and half have missed their international recruitment targets. Some institutions reported a drop of more than 50% in the number of Chinese students, and the most commonly cited reason for the decline in international student enrolments was problems with visas.