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Sheffield University hired private investigators who monitored student elections

Candidates running in the left-wing Solidarity Slate have discovered heavily redacted documents that appear to profile their activities during an election.

University of sheffield students union
Rachel Rae Photography

Documents requested by students under data protection rules show how the University of Sheffield (UoS) hired private investigators who went on to monitor left-wing candidates in a student election.

Commissioned from Oxford-based Horus Security Consultancy, the file lists the names of candidates who ran as part of the Solidarity Slate in this year's elections to the Sheffield Students’ Union.

It goes on to outline some of the group's policies, including a rent strike, a one-off cost of living payment of £2,000 from the university to all students, and a fund to help trans students transition. A large section of the document is completely redacted.

The named students found the files by submitting Subject Access Requests, which allowed them to see any part that mentioned their names. One of the students profiled, Riley, said six members of the Solidarity Slate were named in the report, which he called “an outrageous and massive invasion of privacy.”

“A worry going forward is the precedent this will set, and the extent to which the university will feel comfortable secretly documenting and monitoring students and activists without their consent, especially during future elections,” he told Now Then.

The report, which covers 2 to 8 March 2023, is numbered “Issue 35”, suggesting there may be dozens of other files created over the last year. Its contents page, which is mostly redacted, shows that as well as issues “directly affecting” UoS it also contains a briefing on “National University Developments”, which could include other student protests.

We asked the university to send us the full, unredacted version of the report but they declined to do so, citing reasons around data protection. They told us that, in common with other universities, they hire private companies to undertake “horizon scanning” exercises and to share briefings on issues that may affect the higher education sector.

“These briefings cover issues around cyber security, national and international terrorism and major UK events,” a University of Sheffield spokesperson told Now Then. “They also look at issues that may affect Sheffield specifically, such as upcoming protests.” It isn't clear how the Solidarity Slate candidates fall into these categories.

“The company that compiles the briefings collates publicly available information from news sites, websites and social media platforms. They are not briefed to investigate individual students or actively monitor student social media accounts.”

Sheffield Students' Union is legally a separate entity from UoS itself, raising questions about the ethics of the university investigating activity in the union it shares its campus with.

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The document sent to Riley in response to his Subject Access Request. The names of other Solidarity Slate members are redacted in this version. Now Then has redacted Riley's surname (in red) – the redactions in black are by the University of Sheffield.

In March, The Guardian revealed that UoS hired a different company, Intersol Global, to investigate two student activists who they accused of holding a protest inside one of its buildings (both students say they can provide evidence that they weren't in the city at the time).

That protest was calling on the university cut its ties with global arms manufacturers – a demand repeated in the policy platform put forward by the Solidarity Slate, as described in the document produced by Horus.

According to 2021 research by campaign group Action on Armed Violence, UoS had received more funding from major arms manufacturers than any other UK university since 2013, at a staggering £47 million.

Major companies that produce military tech, including Rolls-Royce and Lockheed Martin, fund UK universities to produce research that can be used for civilian purposes, but that may also be used to manufacture deadly weapons.

Action on Armed Violence say their research "highlights how leading British academics and institutions may be – inadvertently or otherwise – creating and developing technologies which wage war and bring about human rights abuses the world over."

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The front page of the report produced by Horus.

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The contents page shows that the report contains briefings on "National University Developments".

The university could choose not to accept funding from companies that manufacture arms, and potentially make up part of the £47m shortfall with other commissions, but has not yet done so.

Students running as part of the Solidarity Slate believe they were monitored by Horus because their election platform presented a threat to the university’s financial interests.

“Our manifesto was meant to raise awareness of important issues on campus and more broadly in society, such as the cost of living crisis and trans rights, and do our best to support students through them,” said Riley.

“We wanted students to be legitimately supported and treated right by the university and the Students’ Union, and not just as another source of revenue.

“We never set out to threaten anyone during the election, but we do feel it’s telling that the university seems to have felt threatened by our demands that students are treated with dignity and supported through incredibly difficult times.”

Now Then asked Horus Security Consultancy why they chose to accept the job. They told us that they “did not discuss client relationships with third parties.”

Do you work at the university and have more information on this story? Let us know.

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