Could Sussex be forced to monitor students’ University emails?

The government may require it as part of counter-terrorism legislation

It was announced on Friday that King’s College London would be monitoring students’ emails for “extremist material”. Adding a message to the university’s email login page, King’s College stated that emails would be “monitored and recorded” as part of Prevent, the Government’s counter-extremism strategy. Prevent‘s implementation into university communication has been highly contested, with academics slating its purported efficacy and arguing that it creates a ‘culture of mistrust’.

Part of Prevent‘s strategy is to minimise the risk of radicalisation by restricting ‘potentially dangerous’ individuals from being invited to speak at events on university campuses. Sussex has had to introduce a specific policy to address this supposed risk to students.

In 2015, university staff from across the UK added their signatures to a letter addressed to the government, taking issue with Prevent, claiming it would “have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent”. In 2016, a further set of university staff signed a letter that took issue with the scientific evidence supporting Prevent‘s anti-radicalisation strategy.

Sussex’s own Students’ Union vocally condemned the government initiative when it was announced in 2015 that it would be mandatorily implemented in publicly funded higher education institutions, as part of 2015’s revised Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. Registered charities such as university students’ unions across the UK would also be required to monitor student activity.

Despite widespread opposition, the University of Sussex will ultimately be compelled to adhere to the rules set out by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which is responsible for ensuring that all English universities comply with the law. It has yet to need to join the majority of others in England who have already met the criteria set out by HEFCE.

If British universities plan to mitigate the risk of potential radicalisation by monitoring emails, as King’s College London has, dangerous precedents may be set for the extent to which student activities will be surveilled. In response to students concerned about infringements on their freedom of speech, The Vice-Chancellor Professor Adam Tickell, has mentioned that the University has “dual responsibilities to protect and promote freedom of speech and to protect vulnerable people from being drawn into extremism”.

Speaking to The Tab Sussex, a spokesperson for the University of Sussex said that the University does not monitor emails. At this stage, it is unclear whether or not the University will eventually implement monitoring techniques like those at King’s College. Neither is it clear when the University will have fully complied with the HEFCE standards – whether or not they include email surveillance.