The system is so bureaucratic that a large number of students are still waiting for their visas while their classes have already begun.

For a country whose higher education system might collapse if overseas students, who contribute some £2.5 billion annually to its economy in tuition fee alone, stopped coming it is strange that Britain should have a student visa policy which appears to have been designed actually to prevent them from coming here.

While universities woo foreign students and look upon them as cash cows because they pay three to four times more than what their British and European Union counterparts do, the government views them with suspicion. It believes that student visas are open to widespread abuse with extremists and illegal immigrants exploiting “loopholes” to enter Britain.

A new, more stringent, system introduced earlier this year to check the alleged abuse is so bureaucratic and time-consuming that a large number of students in different countries are still waiting for their visas to come through while their classes have already begun. The government says it is designed to make sure that the applicant is a genuine student, has sufficient means to support him or her while in Britain and — in the case of countries such as Pakistan — has no obvious terror links but students complain that it is often used by local staff to harass and humiliate them with all applicants treated as potential terrorists and cheats. The “humiliation” doesn’t end there. At Heathrow airport they are subjected to “insulting” questions and often made to stand in a separate queue for hours.

``We pay through our nose to come here but are treated so shabbily,” said one Indian student who spent more than an hour at the airport.

Among other things, he was asked about his bank account details although he had already provided them to the British High Commission in Delhi (indeed without that he wouldn’t have been given a visa) and made to undergo a chest x-ray.

Compared to their Pakistani counterparts, however, Indian students are lucky that they get a visa at all. In Pakistan, according to immigration agency’s own figures, as many as 5,000 students are waiting for their visa to be processed, and some 9,000 appeals against visa refusals are pending.

Many fear losing their university places if their visas don’t come through by the end of this month. The BBC reported one student as saying that he was waiting for his visa for three months.

“I applied for my visa on 9 July and I mentioned that I intend to go to England on 10 September as I have been given a government scholarship from my employer university… And till now I haven’t received any response from the U.K. Border Agency. I have sent them many e-mails,” Zubair Jatoi from Islamabad said.

Another student said it had been his “dream” to study in Britain but it had turned into a “nightmare.” He was supposed to join Sunderland University in the first week of October but his visa had still not been processed.

“My classes have started. Unfortunately I am more than 7,000 miles away from my campus. You can imagine what I feel. I wish to attend my class but I can’t,” Hafiz Yousef told BBC.

Indeed, the issue has sparked a diplomatic row and, during a visit to Pakistan last week, British Home Secretary Alan Johnson was forced to apologise for the delays. He attributed the chaos to new technology and problems with background checks and assured Islamabad that waiting time for visa would be reduced from two months to 15 days by next month.

Americans not spared

It seems that even friendly Americans, for all the much-vaunted special relationship, have not been spared the visa blues. According to media reports students in Los Angeles have had to wait for more than 40 days for a visa. Applicants from some other American cities have also complained about inordinate delays.

Meanwhile, British universities, desperate for cash that foreign students bring, are livid. They have accused the government of not only undermining their efforts to attract these students but also damaging Britain’s reputation as a friendly higher education destination at a time when other countries are going out of their way to welcome overseas scholars.

“We are all extremely worried about the damage that this could do to the reputation of British higher education overseas, particularly in the Indian subcontinent. It comes at a time when universities’ finances are under enormous pressure,” Simeon Underwood, head of admissions policy at the London School of Economics told The Economist.

The journal pointed out that despite a weak pound which should make Britain a cheaper option for overseas students their numbers have actually “fallen by a fifth because of difficulties in getting visas.”

In recent years, foreign students have got caught up in Britain’s domestic immigration politics on the one hand and the government’s larger “war” on terror on the other with universities being urged, effectively, to spy on their students and inform police if a student overstays his visa or shows sign of “radicalism.”

To their credit, most vice-chancellors have resisted such pressures so far but the prevailing climate of suspicion on British campuses has killed the joy of university life for many foreign students. And, in the long run, it could kill the golden goose itself.