International students coming to the UK have been caught up in a "horrible numbers game," Vince Cable has admitted.
He made the comment as a new drive to recruit almost 100,000 more overseas students into the country was revealed.
The government unveiled a new strategy on Monday to boost international student numbers by 20%, despite repeated warnings overseas students do not feel welcome in the UK.
Business secretary Cable said: "We have created an attractive environment and we should sell this in a positive way. We are anxious to reassure you we welcome overseas students and there is no cap on numbers."
In 2011/12 there were 435,000 international students studying at 163 UK universities and colleges, and a further 53,000 at 159 "alternative providers", such as private colleges, bringing the total to almost 500,000 students.
The report says over the next five years it is "realistic" for overseas student numbers to grow by 15%-20% - meaning that around 90,000 extra students will be coming to the UK to take undergraduate and postgraduate courses.
David Willetts, minister for universities and science, echoed Cable, saying the coalition could "confidently talk about growth in international student numbers" as it had no plans to introduce a cap.
Overseas students were identified as "the core business" of the higher education sector, a view which has previously elicited concern from a former university leader who said students were treated as "cash cows". There are currently around 500,000 international students in higher education, a figure which the government hopes to increase by 90,000 in the next five years.
"We are hungry for expansion," Willetts explained. "We have had to tackle the abuse within the sector but there is confidence in our higher education brand."
In the international education publication, the government recognises "misunderstandings" remain about visa students and the opportunities for students to work once they have finished their studies.
Willetts did acknowledge the issue of unscrupulous agencies recruiting students for courses which do not exist, saying he believed emerging online courses would pose a "threat" to such agents. "Online learning is a far more powerful recruitment tool than these agencies," he told the Huffington Post UK. "Moocs [massive open online courses] are a threat to the agencies, to the middle men. Universities are strengthening their online presence as a form of recruiting."
Universities are paying recruitment agents up to £120m every year to attract international students to the UK, a recent investigation by the Daily Telegraph revealed.
"There is an issue with international agencies," Willetts continued. "Setting high standards for the operation of these is very important."
The government's new strategy promises much needed protection for overseas students, while the UK is working towards implementing principles set out in the London Statement, which monitors international education agents.
In 2012, more than 2,000 students from London Metropolitan University (LMU) were threatened with deportation after the university had its trusted sponsor status revoked. The move was described by Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn as creating an "appalling image" of Britain. One LMU student told HuffPost UK he had already shelled out £17,000 in fees and he could not face returning home and telling his elderly mother what had happened.
"My dad is dead and my mother is old. How can I go home and tell her what's happened?," he said. "How can I say all our money has been wasted?" No-one has said anything about refunding fees. They've left us in the dark."
When asked what support there is for overseas students in the UK, Willetts said BIS had established a cross-government responding to international students crises (RISC) committee to help international students "when things go seriously wrong". But the committee is only for students who are affected by crises in their home countries - such as Syrian students who are unable to renew their visas or who have lost funding.
To date, there is still no support for students who have been misled by overseas agents, or who have been forced to drop out of university due to unforeseen circumstances - and are left out of pocket. Many are returning to their home countries with the message they are not welcome in the UK.
Cable has previously warned the government India is telling its students the UK "doesn't want them" and acknowledged the "serious problem" of perception which has been caused by immigration restrictions.
Cable said he was confident BIS' new strategy would boost international student numbers. “Overseas students make a huge contribution to Britain. They boost our economy, and enhance our cultural life, which is why there is no cap on the number of legitimate students who can study here. Thanks to our world-class universities, our network of UK alumni who are now in positions of influence around the world is impressive, opening doors that would not otherwise be possible. Today’s strategy will help build on this success ensuring we continue to attract international students and promote the UK’s expertise in education.”
This year, the number of international students applying to UK universities fell for the first time in 16 years, prompting the launch of Education is Great campaign.
Willetts admitted there had been "real challenges" in getting the right message across to India and said he intends to expand the campaign in the long term, but said he "didn't know" how much money would be ploughed into improving the UK's PR image to overseas students.
Shen Yang, deputy director-general of the Ministry of Education, China, said the country had financed 100 UK students to study in China, and hopes to grow the number. "We greatly appreciate the UK's efforts to encourage students to study abroad."
Alex Bols, executive director of the 1994 Group, which represents leading UK universities, said: "It is great to see the importance of international students to the higher education system, and to the UK more widely, being recognised in today’s International Education Strategy.
“We are pleased to see the government is reiterating the message that there is no cap on the number of international students that can come to study in the UK. We are keen to see more done to highlight this message to the rest of the world.”