Planned new immigration rules that will require institutions to report all overseas students who miss lectures are unworkable, universities say.
Under the new points-based immigration system, universities must tell the Border and Immigration Agency if a student from outside the European Union is absent from study for more than ten working days without "reasonably granted permission". Institutions must report on foreign students who do not turn up to enrol or who are suspected of breaching the conditions of their visas.
The rules, which come into force early next year, also ask universities to keep up-to-date information on students including mobile phone numbers and copies of passports, and to share these with the agency.
If institutions fail in these duties they risk having their licences to educate overseas students withdrawn or downgraded.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, told the House of Lords last week that universities would be the "largest volume users" of the new system. Race relations legislation may also mean that universities have to monitor attendance of all students, not just that of non-EU nationals.
Alan Mackay, international officer at the University of Edinburgh, said: "We are very concerned about the lack of detail on the implementation of the rules. What if a student does not attend for ill-health reasons and forgets to inform us? What happens during vacation periods? What about PhD students who are writing up?"
He added: "Besides the massive increase in administration costs, what kind of a welcome message is this level of monitoring going to be sending out to students?"
Sir Howard Davies, director of the London School of Economics, which accepts 4,600 international students per year, has written to the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills expressing concerns about the proposals.
In a second letter to David Willetts, Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Sir Howard said that the monitoring proposals were "unrealistic", particularly for masters and PhD students. Monitoring should be based on termly progress rather than attendance, he suggested.
He warned that a more complicated and costly admissions process would deter applicants. "We genuinely believe that the details of the proposal ... are very troublesome and could have a material impact on our ability to attract and retain good-quality overseas students," Sir Howard said.
The new arrangements would make the Prime Minister's aims of attracting an extra 70,000 international students to UK universities by 2011 and improving student satisfaction ratings "far more difficult to achieve", he predicted.
The University of Central Lancashire is taking the new rules so seriously that it has employed a full- time points-based system administrator, Helen Eastham. She told Times Higher Education: "While we accept the Government's rationale regarding reporting non-approved attendance as quickly as possible, there is a concern that pressure to provide information too early could result in flawed data, which benefits neither the student, the institution nor the Border and Immigration Agency," she said.
Mr Willetts said: "The Home Office in planning this system has failed to understand how our universities operate. It's important to keep out people who don't have a claim to be in the country, but equally we have to protect our universities, which are actively seeking foreign students - these cumbersome regulations fail to do that."