The number of mainland students granted visas to study in the US has dropped dramatically over the last year because of fears that they would stay on, an education conference in Beijing has heard. The US has tightened screening of foreign students since last year's terrorist attacks, but participants in last week's Sino-US Educational Co-operation Conference, including academics and students, charge that the US is deliberately limiting the numbers given student visas to avoid an influx of would-be immigrants. Many mainland students had had their hopes of studying in the US dashed because of visa problems, they claimed. The US issued 16,651 visas to mainland students between last October and August, a reduction of about 10.6 per cent from the 18,637 approved in the same period the year before. A spokeswoman for the US embassy in Beijing said the drop was consistent with a worldwide trend since September 11 last year. But she added that applicants' abilities to prove they had no intention to emigrate to the US upon finishing their studies was also important. One disgruntled participant at one of the conference seminars suggested mainland students would be better off going to other countries despite the fact they had 'already contributed much to the US economy in the past as foreign students'. Mainland graduates are furious there are no clear criteria on what it takes to make a successful application. The chair of international operations for the US-based International Education Foundation, David Chen, said the problem lay in proving that students did not intend to emigrate later on. With 59,000 students already in the US, mainlanders accounted for the largest group of foreign students there, followed by Indians with 54,000. But an estimated 250,000 mainlanders had settled in the US after finishing their studies over the past two decades, Mr Chen said. His organisation had been networking with fellow educational agencies and lobbying Congressmen to let in more students from China. 'Some American institutions are very frustrated that the Chinese students they had interviewed and found to have great potential could not come because of visa problems,' he said. 'American institutions want to take in good students, no matter where they are from.' China's massive population meant the number of those who actually gained approval was 'relatively' small. To maximise their chances, some visa applicants undertook private training in handling interviews with immigration officers, a Beijing journalist told the conference. The director of career services at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, Kevin Harrington, who also attended the conference, said Chinese students had said they felt discriminated against. 'But embassy officials have told us there is absolutely no discrimination.' Everyone was treated the same, whether they were in France or South Africa, he said. However, he added that from his experience working with Chinese students, many did want to work or stay permanently in the US upon finishing their studies. John Thomson, a US academic who is now field director of Qinghua University's Inter-University Programme for Chinese Language Studies, expects the visa hurdle to be removed when China's economy further improves. He compared the present situation to what happened to Taiwan about a decade ago. 'The Taiwanese were not returning but once economic conditions improved, the number of those who returned after studying in the US began to increase.'