Theresa May is planning to make universities responsible for ensuring that their overseas graduates leave the country once their courses are finished.
It is thought that the Home Office intends to use data from new checks on those exiting the country, which were introduced at all UK ports and airports in April, as the basis to force universities to take more responsibility for ensuring that graduates from outside the European Union do not overstay their visas.
Any change would occur after data from the new exit checks – which would in theory show which universities have the highest rates of “overstayers” – become available next year.
Sanctions for universities with high rates of overstayers could potentially include the removal of their right to recruit more non-EU students.
Although there is no imminent plan to introduce the change, it is thought to have been discussed with the sector by Home Office officials.
Such a plan would not come as a total surprise, as it was included in the Conservative manifesto at the last general election.
The manifesto said that as “the introduction of exit checks will allow us to place more responsibility on visa sponsors for migrants who overstay, we will introduce targeted sanctions for those colleges or businesses that fail to ensure that migrants comply with the terms of their visa”.
Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), said: “After a student has left a university, he or she no longer has a contractual relationship with that university.
“You can’t see how a university could even enforce a data collection of when a student had left the country. So you can’t see how a university could be made responsible for a student leaving the country.”
Universities are said to be concerned about whether the figures will be accurate, particularly in terms of the match between exit data and information about the status of the passenger on whether they had been in the UK as a student.
Ms May, the home secretary, said in her speech at the Conservative Party conference earlier this month that “too many” overseas students “are not returning home as soon as their visas run out”.
She added: “I don’t care what the university lobbyists say. The rules must be enforced. Students, yes; overstayers, no.”
Ms May wrote in a newspaper article earlier this year that the “gap between the number of non-EU students coming to this country and departing each year is 96,000”.
That figure is based on data from the International Passenger Survey, which is to to be replaced by the new exit data when available.
Lord Willetts of Havant, the former universities and science minister, was among those to criticise Ms May’s statement at the time, calling it “a widely disputed and doubted figure” and “not a solid basis for policy”.
Mr Scott said that it was “madness and bonkers” to believe that 96,000 overseas students overstayed their visas each year, rejecting the idea that students would pay upwards of £10,000 for courses at respected universities only to then “disappear into the black economy”.
The argument was being driven by data “which every sane person, every statistician, says is totally unreliable”, he said.
A Home Office spokesman said that “we will pursue further reforms to tackle abuse, such as students overstaying their visas, while continuing to attract the brightest and the best to our world-class universities”.