Immigration: Damian Green rejects call to exempt foreign students from figures
The government is on course to meet its immigration targets without "fiddling" the figures to exempt foreign students, minister Damian Green has said.
He rejected calls from 70 of Britain's universities to stop counting foreign students as immigrants.
The universities are angry about new rules on visas which they say is harming their efforts to recruit "genuine" overseas students.
They warn it could cost Britain billions of pounds a year.
But Mr Green said the new rules were aimed at closing down "bogus" colleges and there was "no reason" why British universities would not be able to continue attracting the "brightest and the best" students from around the world.
"It's always very tempting to try and meet a target by fiddling the figures," Mr Green told the BBC News Channel, adding: "That's what you would accuse me of doing if I just redefined away the problem."
The universities say they support government efforts to improve border controls and to tackle abuse of student visas.
But, in a letter signed by 70 university leaders, they warn Britain was losing out to its "major competitors", which class foreign students as temporary rather than permanent migrants.
Mr Green says British immigration figures, produced by the Office for National Statistics, are based on an internationally agreed definition of a migrant - someone entering the country for more than a year.
Under the current rules the net migration figures (the number of people moving to the UK minus the number leaving the UK) also count students as an emigrant if they have been in the UK for at least a year when they leave.
This means that any student who came to the UK to study for more than a year and then left would effectively cancel themselves out in the figures over time.
He told BBC News: "A student who comes here for a six month language course doesn't count as an immigrant but if you come here for three years, or four year, or five years, then you are not a visitor, you are an immigrant under the international definition, so we count you as an immigrant."
He admitted that the coalition government, according to figures published so far, had made "no progress" towards meeting its pledge of reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year.
But he said that the next set of figures - for the current year - would show that the government was on course to meet its target.
"We can see significant downward movements in the number of visas being issued and over time, as the figures catch up, because they are nine months out of date, they will be reflected in net migration figures," he said.
Britain attracts around one in 10 students who study outside their home country, generating about £8bn a year in tuition fees, the higher education leaders say in their letter.
This, they added, could increase to £17bn by 2025.
But the heads warned the government's immigration policy risked driving international students to the United States, Australia, Canada and Germany.
The letter was signed by Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader and chancellor of St Andrews University, and the broadcaster and chancellor of the University of Leeds, Lord Melvyn Bragg.
Other signatories include the former Conservative minister and chancellor of the University of Hull, Virginia Bottomley, and Patrick Stewart, chancellor of the University of Huddersfield.
Figures released on 24 May revealed that annual net migration to the UK is currently 250,000 - still double the government's target of fewer than 100,000 people a year.
The most common reason for people coming to the UK is to study, as in previous years.
Recent visa changes include rules that prohibit international students from bringing their dependents with them - unless they are enrolled on a postgraduate course of at least 12 months.
A "more selective" system has also been put in place for students wishing to stay and work in the UK, after they finish their course.