Sheffield University has been criticised for hiring a private investigator to look into the possible involvement of two student activists in a protest in one of its buildings.
The two students received letters on 9 November informing them that the university had hired Intersol Global, a firm of investigators, to look into whether they were involved in a student occupation of a building in late October protesting against Sheffield’s links to the arms industry.
The letters said “a report of alleged misconduct by you is the subject of an investigation in line with the university’s regulations relating to the discipline of students”, and that due to its “serious nature” an independent investigator had been appointed.
An accompanying document said the regulations allegedly broken related to “the improper interference, in the broadest sense, with the proper functioning or activities of the university”, and that the students could face suspension or expulsion from the university, and fines of up to £750 and bills of up to £1,000 for any damage of university property.
Both students say they can prove they were not in the city at the time, leading them to suspect they may have been profiled for their earlier activism work. They say they have not yet had a hearing with the private investigator that the letter said would take place in November or December 2022 to resolve their cases.
One of the students, Martha, who has mental health problems, said the uncertainty of having the investigation hanging over her while she was in her final year of university had led to her having suicidal thoughts.
“I became quite unwell in January and found it really distressing that there was this process happening, and I didn’t know what I’d even been alleged to have done, or know how long it was going to last,” she said. “It left me in quite a suicidal position because I felt there was no way out. It feels like, how have they got my name? There can be no evidence that I was there.”
The other student, Matthew, who asked that their real name not be used, and who uses they/them pronouns, said they received the letter while they were on a year abroad in Amsterdam. After they responded, it took three weeks for Intersol Global to make contact. “They haven’t provided any evidence of their allegation, nor have they outlined what it was or what regulation the allegation breaches,” they said.
Matthew has since provided bank statements proving they were not in Sheffield, as well as statements from witnesses, whom the university said it would contact. “They have consistently worked from the assumption that I am guilty,” Matthew said.
Matthew and their parents have written to the vice-chancellor saying they believe the university has neglected its duty of care towards them.
They added: “At the end of all this I have to go back to Sheffield and do another year and write my dissertation and that leaves me quite uncomfortable and distressed.”
Eva Spiekermann, a co-director of movement building at the student campaigning organisation People and Planet, said she was aware of heavy-handed tactics at universities, including an incident in which Warwick University collaborated with BP to surveil a student climate activist who was involved with People and Planet.
Manchester University has launched disciplinary action against students who occupied a building in protest against high rents, after calling the police on 19 February and launching formal legal action to remove them from the premises, which the students said was “unprecedented”.
Spiekermann said: “Sheffield University’s response to student protest by hiring a private investigator to spy on their own students is alarming and clearly demonstrates the upside down priorities of the university: instead of scrutinising the own institutions’ ties with arms companies that are making a profit of war and destruction, the university more readily invests funds and capacity to profile and police the student body.
“Leaving the investigation and allegations against the two student activists hanging for months certainly impacts on the students’ ability to study, participate in student life and continue campaigning for a more equitable and just university system.”
Sheffield University said that as these were live investigations, it is not able to comment on the specifics. Intersol Global confirmed it was working on the case and said that as the investigation was ongoing and confidential, its policy was to not comment.