Universities in the United States are worried about becoming an extension of the police as the implementation date of Cipris,
the US immigration department's coordinated inter-agency partnership regulating international students, is drawing nearer.
Cipris is an ID system for foreign students in the US. Such students will receive a bar-coded ID, which is linked to information about, among other things, their most recent employers and their education background.
The card will be needed for visa applications, for university registration and each time a student enters or leaves the country.
The information linked to the card is not covered by US privacy laws. This means that the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigations and other agencies will have full access to the data. For authorised officials, it will take as little as a touch-tone telephone to receive the current status of any foreign student.
The original idea to include fingerprints and photographs taken at the host university was dropped last year, according to immigration "because this was not practical".
Cipris has been tested since 1997 at 21 educational institutions in Alabama, Georgia and North and South Carolina.
Although immigration considered the pilot successful and the required bills for implementation of the programme have passed congress, the US branch of the Association of International Educators is sceptical about the results.
The US branch president Bill Barnhart told participants at the annual conference of the European Association for International Education in Maastricht last week: "The participating schools received the required equipment and there were no large public universities involved in the project."
The association's reservations about the project include the fees charged (figures ranging between $60 and $100 are quoted) and the fact that these are to be collected by the universities.
Mr Barnhart also expressed concern about the risk of intrusion into students' privacy and, because of US immigration's bad technological reputation, about the possible consequences of a breakdown of the system.
"Another worry is that students will become hesitant to visit student counsellors as it may be unclear to them which information will be stored and which will not," Mr Barnhart said.
Cipris should be fully operational in five, as yet unspecified, countries by January 2002 and
in use worldwide by January 2003.