The UK Border Agency is refusing to respond to pleas for more flexible rules on how universities should monitor international postgraduate research students, according to the National Union of Students.
Joy Elliott, a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen and an international students' representative, told a conference last week that the NUS was in "an abyss" in negotiations with the UKBA. The UKBA visa rules, introduced last October, require universities to monitor their international students.
Ms Elliott, a former postgraduate research representative on the NUS' executive council, told the UK Council for Graduate Education's conference on meeting the needs of international students that it was inappropriate to require research students, who often work remotely and have infrequent meetings with their tutors, to be monitored in the same way as undergraduates and taught postgraduates, who were required to attend regular lectures and tutorials.
But the UKBA guidelines, which universities are required to interpret, make no exceptions for research postgraduates.
"The UKBA has offered little support for institutions trying to come up with an appropriate monitoring system for international students, and this has been compounded by almost no information on how to monitor PhD students," she told Times Higher Education.
She said the UKBA had indicated to some universities that a monthly meeting with a supervisor would be insufficient to meet monitoring requirements, but had not responded to NUS enquiries about how postgraduate researchers should be monitored. She said some universities had responded to the confusion by imposing "draconian" systems, such as requiring PhD students to clock in using swipe cards, sign up with a school secretary each week or by making previously optional skills courses mandatory for international PhD students.
"We would like the UKBA to be clear in its message to institutions and be flexible enough to adopt a system that suits research postgraduates," she said. "We will not accept an undergraduate system mapped on to postgraduate courses. We don't want institutions panicking and setting up draconian systems in an effort to guess at a system that will fulfil UKBA requirements."
Christina Yan Zhang, the NUS' international students' officer, also criticised the UKBA's "one size fits all" approach and warned that it could deter international students from coming to the UK. "The Home Office and the UKBA should urgently reconsider the monitoring requirements on international students and revise their guidance to better reflect the nature of postgraduate education," she said.
Damian Green, the Conservative immigration minister, said: "It is important that universities let us know if students who come here to study fail to attend. We will not tolerate those who try to enter the UK under false pretences."
JARGON AND POST-HOC INDUCTION: WELCOME TO ABERDEEN
As a graduate of the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada's smallest province, Joy Elliott was attracted to the University of Aberdeen by a website that said it was located in a "small fishing village".
The doctoral student told the UK Council for Graduate Education's conference last week that she was "less pleased" when she "arrived in the oil capital of Europe".
She also reported being unimpressed by the lack of practical information and personal guidance available, and recalled feeling overwhelmed by the unfamiliar jargon and acronyms trotted out during induction sessions.
Ms Elliott, who is a former postgraduate research representative on the National Union of Students' executive council, said she wished the induction sessions had been more spread out - although not left as long as her teaching induction, which did not happen until after she had taught her first course.
She was also shocked by what she saw as Aberdeen's "casual" approach to professional development, and said she felt she lacked some of the skills gained by her peers in Canada, where doctorates take six years.
"But I'm glad to get a doctorate in three years," Ms Elliott added.