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A controversial new University of Sheffield attendance app is sparking fears of student surveillance and wrongful deportations

The University’s iSheffield app, licensed from an Israeli company, is designed to record student locations in order to report international student attendance to the Home Office. What could possibly go wrong?

I Sheffield app
Rhitika Ragu

Welcome to university, students. Now that we are here to learn, please take out your phones, download our app, allow it to track you and use it to mark your attendance in class. Why do we need to save your location data? Because every time you walk into a new lecture or seminar and check in, the app will also check to make sure you’re really in the room. Fail to do so as an international student enough times and we’ll report you to the Home Office.

That’s the basic premise of iSheffield, a new attendance app that the University of Sheffield introduced for all students in January. It has the power, if set to ‘always’ track, to record data on the whereabouts of students – everywhere they go.

Israeli software company Ex Libris, which operates in at least eleven UK universities, licenses the app to the University of Sheffield and manages the app’s data. It’s one of several apps used across the country in a trend towards mobile phone attendance monitoring that’s grown since the pandemic.

“I don’t feel like a human being, I feel like a number. Why can I be tracked 24/7?” said Jonas, an international undergraduate student at the University. Jonas, who is gay and from the Middle East, asked to use a pseudonym for protection from anti-LGBT discrimination in his home country, where he fears being forced to return.

“The fact that my university, which is supposed to help students find their voices, is instead tracking us…That says a lot.”

Some students and staff at the University of Sheffield are worried that technical glitches, combined with human error using the app, could put international students at risk of wrongful deportation.

“International students are in an Orwellian situation where – who do we even tell about problems with the app?” said Dr Lucy Mayblin, a Political Sociologist at the University of Sheffield and expert on UK migration. “The idea that these apps are impervious to human flaws is a complete myth. The apps are just a faceless computer. Students are getting trapped in the system which doesn’t care and is oriented to deporting them.”

Student deportations based on bad data have happened before. After a BBC Panorama documentary in 2014 which revealed cheating by some international students on English language tests, thousands of them were wrongfully accused and forced to leave the country. 35,000 visas were revoked, 2,500 people were deported, and 7,200 were essentially hounded out of the country with threats. There are worries this could happen again.

“The stakes are really high for international students,” said Dr Mayblin.

Screenshot 2024 04 29 at 14 02 55 Digital Check in Troubleshooting 980x592

Students can change location permissions for the iSheffield app in their phone's settings.

University of Sheffield

Data privacy?

University of Sheffield says it is using Ex Libris’ software for a variety of beneficial purposes, including making it easier to identify students who may be struggling with their coursework and might need extra wellbeing support. But one of the app’s other primary functions is to help prove to immigration authorities that the University should keep its license to sponsor international students.

The University does not hide this priority. The second sentence of the About iSheffield Digital Check-in page, which is only accessible for students but is screenshotted below, reads:

Our goal is to efficiently collect attendance and engagement data in a consistent and transparent way that both complies with UK Visa & Immigration (UKVI) and GDPR requirements, and supports the student experience.

Complying with immigration, in the University’s own words, comes first.

Sheffield is not alone in this priority. There is intense pressure for universities to provide international student engagement data to the Home Office because they risk losing their visa license to sponsor international students if they cannot adequately prove that students are actively studying. This has already happened to London Metropolitan University, with devastating results.

In 2012, the same year Theresa May began efforts to make the country a “hostile environment” for people without leave to remain, the Home Office revoked the visa sponsorship licence of London Met after finding that at least half of its students were not attending classes and more than a quarter did not have permission to be in the UK. The decision led to the rescinding of 2,700 student visas and the loss of a fifth of London Met’s total budget for that year – £30 million.

“That incident absolutely terrified universities,” Dr Mayblin tells me.

A lot of money is at stake for the University of Sheffield as well. Like many UK universities, Sheffield relies heavily on international student tuition, which is often double or even triple the price of home student tuition. In the 2022-2023 academic year, it got roughly a quarter of its total income from non-EU international student tuition alone. Without that money, universities across the UK fear that they will enter serious financial difficulties and be forced to make severe cuts.

Dr Sara Vannini, a Lecturer in Information Management and Information Systems, said the University has been open with staff about these fears. “The narrative we’ve been told [by the University] is if we don’t do this app, we’re going to lose international students and we’re going to lose jobs. We’ve been scared with the message of, ‘There’s no alternative, and otherwise it’s going to be a mess and the University has to close down.’”

The Home Office’s student visa sponsorship guidelines do not require universities to report daily attendance. They only require universities to prove that they have “a single academic engagement policy that applies consistently” to all students. This could include data showing any combination of proof that students are submitting coursework, doing research or laboratory work, and attending classes. There is no stipulation that students attend a certain percentage of classes at the undergraduate or postgraduate level.

The University of Sheffield’s choice to record extensive attendance data for the Home Office has led to profound discomfort for some staff. “We don’t want to be complicit in deporting our own students. We are educators, not the police,” said Dr Annapurna Menon, an Associate Lecturer in Politics and International Relations. “We haven’t gotten any assurance from the University that if the Home Office demands specific location data, will the University refuse?”

The answer so far: we don’t know.

Sean Barton, a Media and PR Officer for the University of Sheffield, told Now Then: “Any geolocation data [from the app] is only used at the point of check-in to validate the student is in the room at the time of the event.”

Rachel Scheer, a spokesperson for Clarivate, the parent company of Ex Libris, also tried to reassure, saying: “All Clarivate products operate strict data security protocols and the data within our apps is only available to the university or institution who licensed the app.”

But the University’s privacy notice for current and former students says it has the right to share student data further afield: "The University may need to disclose students’ personal data to organisations contracted to work on its behalf, which could include its insurers or legal consultants."

Dr Menon

Dr Annapurna Menon checks her students’ online attendance.

The University has certainly done so in the past.

Last year, Now Then reported on redacted documents showing that the University hired private investigators Horus Security Consultancy to monitor left-wing candidates in a student election in what one student called “an outrageous and massive invasion of privacy.” The Guardian also reported last year that the University hired Intersol Global to investigate two student activists for allegedly protesting university arms ties inside a university building. It's entirely possible that iSheffield app data could be given to the University’s contractors in the future, whether immigration-related or otherwise, for these kinds of purposes.

After students set up a pro-Palestine encampment on campus to protest the University of Sheffield’s ties to Israeli industry last week, this concern has become particularly salient. Ex Libris, based in Jerusalem, has been making library software since the 1980s, and sells licences of its campusM attendance software to universities across the globe.

Beth Bhargava, a student activist with Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine, said:

Student organisers for Palestinian liberation are especially worried about the iSheffield app due to its administration by Ex Libris – whose headquarters are in fact built upon the Palestinian village al-Maliha. If the university is willing to surveil students going about their day-to-day lives on campus, how might it treat those who seek to hold it to account and to challenge its policies?

Clarivate, the British-American parent company that owns Ex Libris, told Now Then that the data from the iSheffield app is stored in the Netherlands.

‘Minor technical issues’

Technical difficulties are also causing distress for international students struggling to get their attendance recorded accurately, provoking worries that students could get reported to the Home Office based on erroneous data. The university’s Troubleshooting page for iSheffield, which is only accessible to students, lists a minefield of potential technical problems, including that the app crashed, that class sessions are not appearing, that the check-in has “invalid” or “unvalidated” status, that the WiFi signal was too weak, that your location tracking is disabled, that the phone’s timezone is incorrect, or that the phone is on low power mode.

Like many students at the university, Jonas regularly struggles with these technical problems: “What if my phone is dead and I turned up to lecture? Multiple times I would be in a building with no service and I wouldn’t be able to check in.”

Maria Jose Lourido, Education Officer at the University of Sheffield Students Union, said these kinds of issues are widespread:

The reports that we’ve gotten from students is that the app is really fallible.

A lot of students say that lecturers are not putting up the attendance codes, that the app is not properly tracking them when they’re in the room, that the codes are not working, that the app is slow. The university cannot come in and make sure the internet across campus is excellent, so where the internet is not strong, it will fail.

Andy Winter, Director of Student Support Services, said the University is attempting to resolve the issues: “As with many new applications, there have been some minor technical issues that have been addressed as quickly as possible. The option to be checked-in by a lecturer also remains for anyone who experiences any difficulties or cannot access the app.”

Ms Jose Lourido says that isn’t a solution: “When the university tells international students that they have to register their attendance or they’ll have immigration problems, the students have to spend 15 minutes, when they have class, saying to the lecturer, ‘Please, I’m trying to log on but it’s not working.’”

There is also the risk of a cyber attack. Last December, the University of Manchester’s app had to be taken down after a malicious cyber event led to a breach of student data. Now, in order to comply with Home Office visa sponsorship regulations, University of Manchester has chosen to line up international students in person twice weekly to conduct what amount to border control checks.

Ultimately, regardless of technical difficulties, students can be held accountable for whatever the app reports about their attendance – even if it’s wrong, even if the app has been hacked. When students download the app, they have to agree with Ex Libris’ terms of use, in which the company (and the University) appear to wash their hands of any issues that may come up for students using it:

We do not warrant that the app will operate error-free, that the app is free of viruses or other harmful code or that we will correct any errors in the app. You agree that neither we [Ex Libris] nor our licensors [the University] will be held responsible for any consequences to you that may result from technical problems.

One of those “consequences” could be deportation.


Though there haven’t been student protests about the app at University of Sheffield, student activists at the University of Bristol and at Goldsmiths have recently staged boycotts against check-in apps. “The controlling and monitoring of our locations is fundamentally an affront to our freedom of movement as well as a threat to our privacy,” said Student Action Bristol.

The University of Sheffield branch of the University and College Union (UCU) has also put forward a motion opposing the app’s implementation. Among its many concerns, the UCU believes the University has failed to properly educate international students on the risks of failing to use the app correctly: “Information currently communicated to students regarding the use of data is neither sufficiently explained nor transparent, especially in relation to sharing this data in its 'compliance with its UK Visa & Immigration requirements.’”

The University told Now Then that it does not plan to respond to the UCU's motion.

As tempting as it is to place sole blame on the University of Sheffield for this app, Dr Mayblin believes it’s all part of a larger push to crack down on immigration in the UK:

It can’t only be the part of the universities. You can’t take out one part of the system.

The hostile environment agenda which Theresa May introduced is all about outsourcing border control into every area of life. So you’ve got all sorts of people – from doctors to social workers, anyone renting a house to someone – [who] are legally responsible for checking that people have the right to be in the UK.

It’s not like the universities are straightforwardly the baddies in this picture.

Asked whether the University acknowledges the risk of the wrongful deportation of international students due to the app, a spokesperson said it did not, and that "checks and balances [are] in place to address app malfunctions/technical issues as they arise." The University did not share details of these checks and balances with us.

Asked whether the University would explicitly rule out the possibility of it or its partners using the data collected via the app for purposes other than recording and reporting student attendance, the University said it would.

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A shorter version of this article was first published on Sheffield Wire.

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