The move can also cause a clash within the government, with some ministers opposed to putting foreign students through tougher norms to stem the already falling numbers of Indian students, the second largest group of students applying to the UK universities.
According to ‘The Sunday Times’, UK Home Office officials last week held a workshop with representatives of universities to spell out plans to ditch the existing system and replace it with the more rigorous international English language testing system.
The new language tests are expected to be tougher than those in place in Australia and America, putting Britain’s top universities at a disadvantage.
Prime Minister David Cameron has demanded tougher language tests and his home minister, Theresa May, wants to crack down on students who cannot speak English properly.
However, university vice-chancellors are concerned that reductions in student numbers will cost them millions of pounds a year in fees and have called for an economic impact assessment.
UK business secretary Sajid Javid and Chancellor George Osborne are both concerned that cutting overseas student numbers will damage the economy.
A senior government source told the newspaper: “George and Sajid will not back anything that reduces student numbers.”
The universities also argue that science and engineering students would be harder hit because their language skills are worse than those of arts students.
They fear some science courses would have to close down.
Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of Universities UK, said: “There is no evidence to suggest that students recruited under the current English language requirements are held back by their English language skills or are performing poorly academically.
“In fact, official data shows the degree results achieved by international students are similar to those of UK students, with 87 per cent of non-UK students achieving a first or second-class degree.”
Indian students constitute the second-largest foreign students group in the UK after the Chinese and nearly 20,000 Indian students went to the UK for higher studies in the academic year 2013-2014.
The number of Indian students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) courses have declined by nearly 50 per cent between 2010 and 2012 after UK scrapped the two year post-study work permit.