Foreign pupils could be offered places at state academy schools as part of the Government's "education exports strategy" designed to earn Britain money from the teaching sector.
The proposal was made in a leaked letter from Prime Minister David Cameron's private secretary to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, obtained by The Times.
The letter did not make clear how the plan would be arranged or whether fees would be charged, but the prospect of overseas students being able to pay for a place at successful state schools, when some areas are suffering a shortage of spaces, is likely to prove controversial.
The four-page letter, sent on July 1 and marked "restricted", asked universities minister David Willetts to work with the Department for Education on increasing the place of schools in the export strategy, which also includes a drive to attract international students to UK universities.
"While the academies/free schools programme should focus on consolidating domestic progress over the next couple of years, we should look at export potential too," wrote the Number 10 official. This should include consideration of allowing international students to access places at academies."
The Times quoted an unnamed "Whitehall insider" as suggesting that any international students at state schools are likely to be charged fees: "This week the Government has launched a blitz to stop foreigners getting free access to the NHS. Therefore the idea that international pupils would attend British state schools for free is a non-starter."
The letter also made clear that Downing Street regards attracting talented students to the UK as an important part of its drive to "win the global race" for economic prosperity. "We need to make clear that there is no limit on the students who come here and we should showcase the many options that remain available for students to remain in the UK after their studies," it stated.
Universities could be encouraged to "take ownership" of students following graduation while they seek the job earning £20,000 or more that is required for them to be allowed to stay in the UK, the letter suggested. And it indicated that Downing Street wants universities to make greater use of visas reserved for "exceptionally talented" migrants, which the UK Border Agency says are designed for "people who are internationally recognised as world leaders or potential world-leading talent in the fields of science and the arts, and who wish to work in the UK".
Meanwhile, the Business Department was asked to work with the Home Office on finding ways to "smooth the passage of those students we most want to attract into the country", which could include reducing the administrative burden of visa applications or making it easier for those who have studied in the UK to get a visa when they return in future. PhD students in science, technology, engineering and maths could be made to wait three years, rather than the normal five, to apply for citizenship.
Downing Street declined to comment on the letter. A spokesman said only that Number 10 never commented on leaked documents.