Universities accused of ‘spying’ on student protesters for police

Police knocked on the door of Tugba Iyigun after she attended and posted on social media about a pro-Palestine protest at her university (Picture: Tugba Iyigun)

British universities have been accused of ‘collaborating’ with police to monitor students amid a wave of pro-Palestine protests.

From telling one university the flying of a Palestinian flag on campus does not ‘look well’ on their establishment to expressing worries over the ‘number of foreign students’ admitted at another, police forces have had a ‘cosy’ relationship with university administrators in recent months.

An investigation by Liberty Investigates and Metro.co.uk, the editorially independent journalism wing of the human rights advocacy group Liberty, found universities shared protesters’ data with police despite not being asked to do so.

One University of York student said officers visited her home on November 19 to refer her to the counter-terror programme Prevent because she posted, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ on X at a campus rally.

The phrase dates to the dawn of the Palestinian nationalist movement in the early 1960s. It’s often used by Palestinian activists as a call for freedom between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which is historically Palestine.

Some Jewish groups, however, see the slogan as anti-Semitic. They say it suggests a future without a Jewish state and isn’t clear what role Jews will have in this future.

York is one of dozens of British universities where students have held protests against Israel’s war (Picture: Tugba Iyigun)

Only days before she posted, campus security offered to share footage of the protest with police after investigators requested the address of a female picketer who posted the same phrase.

The student and former Turkish journalist, Tugba Iyigun, 43, said: ‘The university claims that they [support] human rights… yet they didn’t take any steps to protect my rights. I am their student and this is a solid attack on my freedom of speech.’

The cases have come to light after Metro.co.uk and Liberty Investigates submitted FOI requests to more than 140 universities for copies of email exchanges with police discussing pro-Palestinian protest activity from October 1 until May 16.

In one email forwarded by North Yorkshire Police to the head of campus safety at York University, a former police officer, said of an unnamed female protester Iyigun believes to be herself: ‘She came to our attention during the anti-monarchy protests during the King’s Visit in York.

‘Is it possible to find out whether she is a current student at the uni please and any address details they hold?’

The force also highlighted that campus protesters had chanted ‘five, six, seven, eight, Israel is a terrorist state’.

On May 21, campus security said it was keeping a log monitoring the ‘general mood/behaviour’ of the York encampment, lamenting senior management’s decision against installing CCTV, the disclosures show.

Bodycam footage obtained by Liberty Investigates shows the moment police spoke with Iyigun about her social media post

She had posted a pro-Palestine phrase on the social media platform X

Earlier that month, the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s (NPCC) neighbourhood policing lead contacted all police forces asking for intelligence on any students ‘replicating American campus protest’, an email sent from Gloucestershire Constabulary to the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester suggests.

Administrators promised to update the police on planned protests after officers pointed out ‘the number of foreign students [it has] enrolled’.

Two Palestinian University of East Anglia (UEA) students also said they were ‘silenced’ when police advised staff that allowing their country’s flag to be raised on campus did not ‘look well on the establishment’.

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By late May, thousands of students across Britain joined the global student-led encampment against Israel’s deadliest war in the Gaza Strip, which has killed nearly 38,000 people.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called a meeting of vice-chancellors at 17 universities earlier that month, urging them to take a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to anti-Semitism and tackle ‘disruption to students’ learning’.

But protests have rumbled for months since Hamas, which governs the enclave, attacked southern Israel on October 7 in an assault that saw 1,139 people killed and hundreds kidnapped.

‘It’s like I don’t have the freedom to represent myself and my state,’ one of the students said.

Another added: ‘I feel like an outsider now.’

Police also told UEA that a pro-Palestine talk scheduled by student Marxists was ‘one to monitor’.

UEA security requested an officer join their control room to monitor CCTV during a protest held on the university’s open day, emails showed.

Israeli forces have killed nearly 38,000 Palestinians since October 7, according to local health officials (Picture: Anadolu)

Since late May, students have occupied university buildings and pitched up encampments on campus grounds (Picture Martin Pope/ZUMA Press Wire/Shut)

A spokesperson for the University of York, which told police it could have footage of the rally if it submitted a Data Protection Act (DPA) request, said: ‘The University did not receive a DPA request regarding personal data of a student, nor did it receive a DPA request for footage of a protest, and therefore no personal data or footage was released to police.

‘The University would only consider the release of this type of information if a DPA request was submitted.’

More than half of the universities that responded to FOI requests said no emails had been exchanged with police. Others failed to respond by the deadline or declined to answer, including several whose handling of encampments has faced criticism from protesters, such as The University of Oxford, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and University College London (UCL).

Of the universities that did disclose staff correspondence with police officials, the cache revealed varying degrees of cooperation and intelligence sharing.

Aston University, a research institution in Birmingham, had invited police to discuss how staff could respond to an encampment before threatening a student encampment with legal action.

In June, the students ‘voluntarily’ left their encampment, according to a spokesperson.

A manager at Queen Mary University of London speculated to police that ‘radical elements’ would ‘hijack the momentum’ of campus demonstrations.

‘We are monitoring closely the plans of the students in the encampment and will provide you with the details when they are known,’ they said.

On a separate occasion, the manager informed officers they expected around 200 people would attend an unauthorised protest, saying it ‘posed a public order threat’.

The University of London’s School of Advanced Study and the University of Cambridge’s leadership teams also held meetings with police on how to respond to protests.

The Oxford Action for Palestine Encampment at The Radcliffe Camera last month (Picture: Geoffrey Swaine/Shutterstock)

The cache of emails suggests university leaders worked with police officials in response to the protests (Picture: William Lailey/SWNS)

Warwick similarly sought advice on ‘Prevent-related issues’ about a Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) diaspora network representative being invited to speak by students. Administrators had also shared Instagram posts promoting pro-Palestine protests with officers.

Prevent is a multi-agency effort to ‘stop individuals becoming terrorists’, according to Counter Terrorism Policing. Yet Amnesty International says the programme ‘disproportionately violates’ the human rights of young minority ethnic people and lacks transparency.

A second FOI request revealed at least 15 universities have taken disciplinary action against staff and students in connection with pro-Palestine protests since October.

A University of Essex student who allegedly shouted ‘Free Palestine’ at a cafe has been accused of ‘exhibiting threatening behaviour and harassment’. Five months on, they are still waiting on a decision for their case.

UEA, City University London and Cranfield University all admitted to sharing student personal data with police forces. Cranfield also referred up to four students to Prevent, according to the findings.

A UEA spokesperson said: ‘The data relates to one incident of criminal damage committed by a student, which the university reported to the police.’

The Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) said the emails lay bare a ‘cosy relationship’ between officers and campus security acting as ‘gatherers of political intelligence’.

Palestinians inspect the rubble at the al-Daraj clinic in Gaza City after it was hit in an Israeli strike in June (Picture: AFP)

Campaigns coordinator Kevin Blowe said: ‘Universities [are] appearing to accept without question the police’s paranoid belief that political activism is a dangerous “outside” influence on the student body, even one “imported” by overseas students.

‘These are profoundly racist assumptions and failing to challenge them is a failure to protect young people from harm.’

A University College Union (UCU) spokesperson described the findings as ‘disturbing’.

‘Evidence of university managers collaborating with the police to target, surveil, and potentially criminalise their own students for peacefully protesting against genocide should ring alarm bells,’ they said.

Most universities named in the investigation said they are committing to protecting and encouraging free speech, often stressing it is a ‘legal obligation’.

The RAU said the university ‘works closely with the local police and, if requested to do so, would provide them with details of any events taking place on our campus’.

British police chiefs appeared concerned that students would borrow from the US pro-Palestine campus protest playbook (Picture: EPA)

Warwick said it ‘regularly works with our local police and our dedicated community safety team to ensure the wellbeing, safety and security of all members of our community’.

A City spokesperson could not comment on the cases but stressed the university has a ‘legal obligation to protect freedom of expression and we take it very seriously’.

Cranfield did not immediately respond to comment but said in a general statement: ‘The safety and wellbeing of students, staff and the wider community is our top priority. Cranfield University takes its responsibilities under the Prevent Duty seriously, while also protecting free speech and academic freedom.’

Aston University said it is ‘committed to providing an inclusive, caring and empowering environment for every member of our community, seeking to ensure that diversity of beliefs and opinions can be expressed freely and openly within the law’

Queen Mary and the Royal Agricultural University did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

North Yorkshire Police said: ‘Anyone has the right to peaceful and lawful protest and the police service’s role is to ensure that they pass peacefully and lawfully while balancing it with the rights of others, minimise disruption and keep people safe.’

The Metropolitan Police declined to comment. The NPCC did not immediately respond.

Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at webnews@metro.co.uk.

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