Less than a week after student visa applications from north India, Bangladesh and Nepal were suspended, Britain on Sunday announced a series of new restrictions on foreign students from outside the European Union.

The surprise announcement was widely seen as Labour’s attempt to sound tough on immigration which is likely to dominate the political debate in the run-up to the general elections in May.

The government, however, insisted that the move was aimed at checking widespread “abuse” of current visa rules.

Under the new rules, expected to come into force before the elections, applicants will be judged to a higher standard of spoken English than is currently required; the number of hours that foreign students are allowed to work in a week will be halved from 20 to 10; students on short courses, lasting up to six months will not be allowed to bring dependants; and dependants of those on longer degree courses will not be allowed to work during their stay in Britain.

The proposed restrictions come less than a year after the introduction of a points-based immigration system which subjected non-EU foreign students to a range of stringent requirements.

A review was ordered last winter following allegations that many applicants, especially from the Indian subcontinent, were using student visas as a pretext to enter Britain for jobs by signing up for short courses in “bogus” colleges run by immigrants.

It is also alleged that loopholes in the current rules have been used by potential terrorists to enter Britain.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson said Britain remained open to those who wished to come to Britain for legitimate study and insisted that it remained the second most popular destination for foreign students.

“We have to be careful that we are not damaging a major part of the U.K. economy, between £5 billion and £8 billion,” he told the BBC referring to the amount of money contributed by foreign students to the British economy every year.

Dismissing opposition criticism that the government has been lax in preventing abuse of visa rules, he said: “We closed down 200 bogus colleges…By 2011, we will have the most sophisticated system in the world to check people not just coming into the country but to check they have left as well.”

For Britain’s cash-strapped universities, fee-paying foreign students are a major source of income and they fear that the government’s tough approach would deter them from coming to Britain.

More In: International | News