Up to 36,000 students from countries such as Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia could drop out, especially in areas such as engineering and business
Emergency measures, including the cutting of course fees and offers of bursaries worth thousands of pounds, are being taken to try to hold on to students.
The move to discount fees for overseas students comes just as British students are having to contribute towards the cost of tuition for the first time, although the uptake of student places through the clearing system indicates that few people are deterred from applying.
Among the universities worst affected by the fall-off in South- East Asian student numbers are Strathclyde, Warwick, Leeds, Liverpool and Bristol. Threatened with a pounds 11m loss in income, they have been swift to cut course fees by up to 10 per cent and increase hardship funds.
In the past overseas students have helped to generate more than pounds 300m a year in fees for British universities. Last year, more than 48,000 students - the equivalent of five per cent of the undergraduate population - came to study in Britain from South-East Asia. This figure is expected to drop by three-quarters if the Asian crisis continues.
The British Council predicts that the universities that will survive the crisis are those with a well-established international marketing scheme in place. This means they can easily target new countries such as Brazil and Turkey. "Foreign students are a major source of income but no one really knows how bad the situation will be. It is possible that some overseas students will not take up places which they have been offered," said a council spokeswoman. "The key difference will be in how different universities market themselves."
This is not much consolation for Strathclyde University which has the highest number of Asian students in the country. Its overseas applications have tumbled by 20 per cent over the last year. It has responded with 30 new scholarships for South-East Asian students and a favourable exchange rate on fees.
"We are very aware of the situation although it is not as bad as we feared," said a spokesman. "It is interesting to see that we have been inundated with offers for our pharmacy training programme. Students have been encouraged because it involves spending only one year in the UK. Ideas like this could be a way round the problem."