THE number of overseas students from key countries studying at Scottish universities has fallen in the wake of tough new immigration rules introduced by the Westminster Government.

Official figures show universities in Scotland have seen a two per cent decline in first-year student enrolments from China, a 12 per cent decline from India and a nine per cent drop from Nigeria.

Although overall international student recruitment at Scottish universities is up by one per cent, the decline from crucial countries has sparked concern from universities, student leaders and academics.

Universities Scotland, which represents principals, renewed calls for the Scottish and UK Governments to give urgent attention to the introduction of a post-study work visa for international students in Scotland.

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said: "Scottish universities need action from government to improve its post-study work offer. We are losing out in key markets as our competitors take steps to attract more international student talent."

Tougher visa restrictions were introduced by the Home Office after widespread concern at the proliferation of bogus colleges operating as "visa shops".

As a result, overseas students have found it harder to secure a place and have limited rights to work after they complete their studies.

The decline in numbers is significant because universities rely on the lucrative fees paid by overseas students to subsidise courses for Scottish students - with institutions charging as much as £17,000 a year.

Scottish universities saw their income from overseas students rise to a record £374 million in 2014 while international students also contribute an ­estimated £441m to the Scottish economy annually.

The final report of the Smith Commission published in November 2014 recommended that the Scottish and UK Governments should "explore the possibility of introducing formal schemes to allow international higher education students graduating from Scottish further and higher education institutions to remain in Scotland and contribute to economic activity for a defined period of time".

Mr Sim said the new figures "underline just how important it is that this work is progressed".

Mary Senior, UCU Scotland official, said overseas students benefitted the economy, Scotland's universities and the educational experience of fellow students.

She called for powers relating to immigration in higher education to be devolved. She added: "For Scotland's universities to be world-leading we need to attract students from overseas and for those students to feel welcome, and able to live and work in Scotland after graduating.

"The fall in the number of students coming from Nigeria, China and India reflects the direction of travel in UK immigration policy."

Gordon Maloney, president of student body NUS Scotland, added: "Giving Scotland the power to introduce post-study work visas is something the Smith Commission hinted at, and we would urge both governments to make it a reality."

Education Secretary Angela Constance said: "The fall in student numbers from countries that have historically sent high numbers of international students is disappointing.

"The Scottish Government believes that this is a consequence of the negative message that the UK Government immigration policy sends to international students."