The government is putting short-term political aims above concerns over long-term migration with its plans to cut the number of international students coming to the UK, a think-tank said on Monday.
International students need to be taken out of the immigration numbers game, which is damaging the UK's universities and colleges, its economy and its international standing, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) said.
David Cameron has pledged to cut net migration - the number of people coming to the UK for more than 12 months, less the number leaving - from 250,000 to the tens of thousands by 2015.
But the IPPR think-tank warned the government against trying to achieve this by cutting the number of international students in the short term.
Planned government reductions in student migration would cost the UK between £2bn and £3bn a year in economic contributions from the loss of 50,000 students, but the impact on long-term net migration would be small, the IPPR said.
Only about 15% of international students stay in the UK permanently, the IPPR said.
Instead it called for the government to switch to a "more rational method of measuring student migration flows", only counting students who stay on in the UK permanently.
The IPPR's report said the net migration target was distorting the government's policy choices.
"The current method of measuring student migration flows gives the government a perverse incentive to cut international student numbers in the short term, rather than focusing on what it states is its real aim: controlling long-term net migration," it said.
"This report suggests that the decisive reason why the UK government is sticking with the current method of measuring student migration flows is not a genuine concern with long-term net migration but a desire to 'game' its own net migration target by banking large apparent reductions in 2013 and 2014 which reflect the limitations of the current method of measurement rather than real changes in long-term net migration trends."
In March, a students' union launched a campaign on behalf of international students in protest against the government's immigration policies, which the body claimed were "absolute rubbish" - see the gallery below for their efforts.
Sarah Mulley, the think-tank's associate director, added: "The government need to take international students out of the immigration 'numbers game', which is damaging our universities and colleges, our economy and our international standing.
"This would enable ministers to move back to a policy that supports rather than penalises one of the UK's most important industries and sources of both future growth and global influence, without in any way hampering its stated objectives of controlling long-term net migration and continuing to target abuse of the student visa system."
But if the government continues to pursue a reduction in international students as an objective in its own right, "it must admit that it is placing short-term political considerations above a genuine concern with long-term net migration", she added.
The think-tank also dismissed claims that the government was simply adhering to international standards, saying: "There is nothing to stop the UK taking a different approach."