With less than a month left to apply for a licence to appoint new academics from outside Europe, most universities have not filed their applications.
The UK Border Agency has told all employers to apply by 1 October if they want to be able to hire new foreign researchers from November, when a points-based immigration system will be launched. If universities have not registered as a sponsor of "tier 2" skilled workers, they will be unable to get work permits for new researchers.
So far, universities have registered for tier-2 sponsorship. Immigration expert Duncan Bain, from solicitors Morgan Cole, said: "The UK Border Agency's Register of Sponsors shows that so far there have been only 153 approved applications from all employers nationwide, and the agency is concerned about a bottleneck. The application process is not particularly complex, but it does involve an audit of human resources processes and this means that organisations have to be well prepared before they lodge their application."
He speculated that universities may have failed to register because of confusion over deadlines. Higher education institutions need to register to sponsor tier-2 workers and overseas students (tier 4). The deadline for tier 4 is next spring.
"Administering the points-based system doesn't fit neatly into one department - it's a job for student admissions and HR functions," Mr Bain said. "I'm guessing that if the admissions team has been made responsible, they are forgetting to tell their HR colleagues."
The Border Agency recently published guidance on monitoring student attendance, which will be a requirement when the new system is introduced for tier 4 next year.
Universities must inform the agency if a student leaves a course, fails to enrol within ten days of the end of the enrolment period, defers their studies after arrival in the UK or misses ten "expected contacts". "In the higher education institutions, where daily registers are not kept, we will accept reports of where the student has missed expected interactions, for example, tutorials or submission of coursework," the guidance says.
The agency issued a warning to universities that if "significant numbers" of students drop out of courses or fail to enrol, this will raise concerns about their recruitment processes and their "overall suitability" as a sponsor of foreign students.
The agency said: "We will investigate. If it turns out that it was because of poor administration, or deception on the part of the students, we may downgrade your licence to a B rating and put in place an action plan to stop further abuse. If we find that you are aware of the abuse, we will suspend your licence immediately and possibly withdraw it if our investigation proves this."