EDUCATION Secretary Michael Russell has provoked a row between the Scottish and UK governments after claiming Britain's immigration policies are based on "nasty xenophobia".

Mr Russell attacked the UK Government's immigration policy as "revolting" and suggested it was being driven by the UK Independence Party (Ukip) and was damaging Scottish universities.

The SNP minister, who has faced accusations of discrimination against English students by charging them to study at Scots universities, will use a speech at an education conference in Edinburgh today to accuse the UK Government of treating foreign students with suspicion and damaging Scottish Higher Education's global reputation.

In a section of his speech released last night, Mr Russell said: "The debate south of the Border is being driven by Ukip and by a nasty xenophobia which certainly revolts me and I think revolts many others."

He blamed UK Government policies for halving the number of Indian students at Scots universities last year to 1665, which he claimed was "daft and self-defeating".

Mr Russell also claimed the country's leading seats of learning were "up against an immigration policy entirely focused on cutting numbers and measuring success by restriction and expulsion".

He added: "When students are excluded, when genuine scholars are treated with suspicion, then the reputation of the UK and by association - Scotland - as a place to study is undermined. It is essential Scotland is able to set our own policies on migration and citizenship.

"Scotland needs to be seen as a welcoming place, open for academic and research business and more than willing to see those of talent staying if they wish to build lives and careers."

Mr Russell's comments are due to be made at the Economic and Social Research Council event discussing the possible consequences of independence on higher education.

His comments come days after Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael, who is also a speaker at the event, warned SNP proposals to boost immigration after independence were incompatible with plans to join the UK and Ireland's borderless travel zone.

The SNP have outlined a series of policies designed to increase immigration, including work visas for graduates, to tackle problems caused by the country's ageing population.

Scotland Office Minister David Mundell said: "This is an outrageous comment from Mike Russell.

"It is simply ridiculous of him to talk about xenophobia when his own Government talks about pursuing a plan for tuition fees if Scotland chose to leave the UK. That would be illegal under EU law because it discriminates against students in the continuing UK simply on the basis they are English, Welsh or Northern Irish."

The Scotland Office issued figures showing that while the number of students from India fell dramatically, those from other countries rose.

They included a 4% increase in Chinese students to 7795 and a 4% rise in American students to 3790. Overall, the number of foreign students fell 1% last year to 28,305.

Mr Mundell added: "This shows a complete lack of understanding of immigration policy. There is no cap on numbers of foreign students at universities and no bar to EU students coming here to study."

Neil Bibby, Scottish Labour's deputy education spokesman, said: "This is hypocrisy from a man who decides whether he will charge students tuition fees based on their nationality and discriminates against English, Welsh and Irish students."

He added: "It is a desperate attempt to take attention away from the fact his tuition fees policy would fall apart if Scotland votes Yes."

In his speech today, Mr Carmichael is to say an independent Scotland will lose out on millions of pounds. He is to point out that Scots higher education institutions spent £953m in 2011, or about £180 per head of population in Scotland, compared with £112 across the UK generally.

He will say: "We don't get access to this despite being part of the UK. We get it because we are part of the UK."