Universities Minister, Jo Johnson MP, has expressed his concern about the “troubling incident” at University College London (UCL) last week, emphasising that the Government “takes anti-Semitism extremely seriously”, in response to a letter from CFI’s Parliamentary Chairman, Rt. Hon. Sir Eric Pickles MP.
The Minister underlined that “there is no place in our society for bigotry, hatred or any form of racism”, following last Thursday’s events in which police were called to UCL when anti-Israel protesters harassed attendees at the UCL Friends of Israel Society event.
In light of the intimidation of the event by anti-Israeli protesters, Mr Johnson said: “Universities have a clear responsibility to provide a safe and inclusive environment and no staff or student should ever feel threatened or intimidated”.
In his letter, Sir Eric condemned the “shameful events” at the university, which required pro-Israel students to be escorted from the event by police for their own safety. He described video footage from the event as “shocking” and said that it is “simply unacceptable in 2016 that a group of students expressing their right to free speech require a police escort to leave a prestigious university building for their own personal safety”.
The former Communities Secretary called on the Minister “to do everything within [his] power to ensure that free speech is protected on university campuses across the UK”.
Mr Johnson confirmed that the Government has asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to “engage with UCL to ensure that their policies and procedures for events with external speakers are fit for purpose”.
Addressing concerns that anti-Israel activists are threatening the free speech of pro-Israel students, Mr Johnson said universities have a “legal duty to secure freedom of speech for their members, students, employees and visiting speakers”. He stated: “Open and robust debate is how students should challenge those they disagree with – there is no place for students that use intimidation or violence to attempt to shut down the free and open exchange of ideas – even ones they disagree with”.
The Minister referred to the recently published Universities UK report on violence and harassment on campus, which set out that “universities should embed a zero-tolerance approach to harassment and hate crime”.
He emphasised the importance of implementing the recommendations of the report, stating that “we must now ensure that the work of this taskforce goes on to make a real difference to students across the country”.
In response to the concerns raised by Sir Eric about the day-to-day anti-Semitism experienced by Jewish and Israeli students in the UK that goes unreported, Mr Johnson said the new guidelines should “help universities in reporting and effectively tackling anti-Semitic incidents”.
Sir Eric also wrote to the President and Provost of UCL, Professor Michael Arthur, to express his concerns and called for an immediate and thorough investigation, which is now underway.
In his response, Professor Arthur reiterated UCL’s statement issued online last week, which can be found here.
Sir Eric said: “It is encouraging that the Government has taken this latest incident so seriously and I trust that this will be matched by the university authorities during their ongoing investigation”.