Gillian Keegan is the Education Secretary, and MP for Chichester.
No student should have to attend university in a climate of fear. British universities rightly pride themselves on their openness, tolerance and the diversity of the student body. It’s why we are a top destination for international students, and why we are home to many of the best universities in the world.
Since Hamas’ appalling and barbaric terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, that spirit of tolerance is more important than ever.
That tolerance goes both ways. There are many who are legitimately concerned about the humanitarian impacts of the conflict in both Gaza and Israel – and they have every right to make their feelings known. That is also reflected in the Government’s response: we have fiercely defended Israel’s absolute right to defend itself, whilst simultaneously providing aid to innocent civilians equally suffering in Gaza.
However, freedom of speech has its limits.
The images I have seen of Jewish students being harassed, or pro-Hamas demonstrations being held on campuses, have been despicable. Some of these students have contacted me and have told me that for the first time in their lives, they have feared expressing or showing their religion in public. This is unacceptable and cannot be allowed to take place in a free society.
The University and College Union (UCU) branch at UCL, which represents higher education staff, has even called for “Intifada”, which refers to an uprising. This is irresponsible and deeply wrong. The promotion of conflict and glorification of terrorism will never be tolerated. UCL has rightly condemned their incitement of violence and called on the UCU to withdraw their statements.
It is dangerous, extreme and puts Jewish students and staff at risk of genuine harm.
Hamas is a terrorist organisation which is proscribed in the UK. The Home Secretary has been clear that it is illegal to support them in this country, and people who do so will face the full force of the law.
I have been made aware of some university lecturers who have expressed extremely disturbing views. These ideologies are dangerous at the best of times, but even more so when in positions of power and influence.
Many of our universities have taken a robust approach to any display of pro-Hamas rhetoric. Already, several have been immediately suspended, with further investigations ongoing either by universities, or the police. On top of this, several student societies have been suspended with many more investigations currently ongoing.
One university on the south coast is currently carrying out a misconduct hearing, and the person involved has been referred to the Prevent counter-terror programme. Another at a different institution has been arrested.
Alongside despicable support for Hamas, we have seen troubling reports of more direct discrimination against Jewish students or workers in higher education.
When I travelled to Israel myself many years ago, I visited Yad Vashem. It was an experience I will never forget. It told how encroaching antisemitism bled into a society. It was a creeping discrimination that normalised antisemitism and culminated in millions of Jewish people murdered in concentration camps across Europe.
We should never forget that the Holocaust did not begin with mass killings or the concentration camps, but in the streets, in the classrooms, in the workplaces of Europe. This is where poisonous words and passive acceptance of discrimination became the norm.
We must say no. We must call out antisemitism. We must never sit by and let other people’s hate go unchecked.
Alongside Robert Halfon, my ministerial colleague as higher education and skills minister, I wrote to university leaders to express our deep concern for the welfare of Jewish students and to ask that they act swiftly and decisively against any threats to their safety and welfare. And to remind them of their duties under the UK’s Prevent counter-extremism programme.
Although this advice has been heeded by most, we need to do more.
I will be writing to the Office for Students to ask them to investigate the appropriateness of the actions taken by universities when cases of antisemitism or support for proscribed terrorist groups such as Hamas occur. I will be calling on them to make full use of their powers as the higher education regulator.
At a recent round table with Suella Braverman we discussed what more the police and immigration services can do to ensure they are using all their powers to clamp down on hate crime and those supporting proscribed organisations in higher education settings.
Building on this, Halfon will continue to engage with vice chancellors across the country to ensure the actions they are taking are robust, so that no student feels unsafe or faces any form of discrimination in a UK university. We will take rapid action to stamp out discrimination of all kinds, whether that is antisemitism, anti-Muslim, or any other forms of hate.
Britain is rightly respected around the world for the immense levels of tolerance and openness we enjoy in our society alongside the quality of our universities.
It’s time that a vocal minority on our campuses stopped glorifying terrorism. As a government we will always stand up for our fundamental British values – and stand united against hate and intolerance.