Police are conducting widespread security checks on overseas students amid concerns that potential terrorists could be gaining entry to the United Kingdom.
Local police forces are providing universities with a checklist of names, mainly of people from Middle Eastern countries, and requiring each institution to confirm whether those claiming to be enrolled as students are registered properly and attending classes.
The checks, reportedly stepped-up after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, are a response to concerns that illegal immigrants have been enrolling on courses to gain entry to the UK, before disappearing.
A Home Office spokesman this week declined to comment on any specific post-September 11 security action on campuses, but the University of Kent at Canterbury confirmed that it and other universities had been approached by the police.
In a memo to colleagues at other universities, Pamela Cross, director of Kent's International Office, says: "We have been approached by the police in Canterbury who have required that we should confirm the continued registration of a large number of students from certain countries (mainly Middle Eastern).
"The police have couched this request in terms of national security after September 11."
A spokesman for Canterbury police said that this was a national issue and referred The THES to the Home Office.
Ms Cross said other universities had received similar approaches from local police forces, usually on a smaller scale and focusing on single countries. Other institutions, including two in the Northwest, have received blanket requests to verify their overseas students from immigration authorities, not the police.
Overseas student-services professionals have been concerned about data protection. Clive Saville, chief executive of the UK Council for Overseas Student Affairs, said the police requests may break the rules.
"Unless authorities can produce some clear statutory override (to data protection guarantees), institutions need to look at the terms on which they have told students they will disclose data to third parties without consent, before they hand data over," he said.
Police can use special provisions to circumvent rules on disclosure.
A Home Office spokesman said: "We cannot comment on specific intelligence-based activity the police are acting on. Generally speaking, we liaise closely with universities and organisations dealing with overseas students.
"Appropriate checks are always made on visa applications and we also encourage colleges and universities to pass on any information about people who are not attending courses they have enrolled on. If our enforcement teams received any intellig-ence on that, they will act on it."