Universities minister accused of ‘washing hands’ of university antisemitism

Education select committee chair Robert Halfon said the universities minister Michelle Donelan should take “a proactive role” in tackling the antisemitism in universities

The education select committee chair has suggested the universities minister is ducking responsibility for antisemitism in universities. 

The accusation came amid an intense exchange between minister Michelle Donelan and chair Robert Halfon during a select committee accountability hearing on Tuesday 27 April. 

Mr Halfon asked Ms Donelan to intervene in an investigation underway at the University of Bristol into academic Prof David Miller. The chair said the university was a “hostile environment to Jewish students”, who feel “that they’re living in 1930s Germany”. He pressed the minister to cut funding to the university if necessary. 

“Jewish groups have alleged that the University of Bristol has provided an academic with a platform to promote conspiracy theories about Jewish influence and control, using classic anti-semitic tropes to characterise the State of Israel,” Mr Halfon began, before asking Ms Donelan if she had spoken to the vice-chancellor Prof Hugh R Brady about the case. 

Ms Donelan declined to comment, saying: “There’s an investigation going on in Bristol, and I believe it’s still live. I would urge Bristol University to ensure that it is as thorough as possible because some of the reports that have come out are extremely concerning.”

“I would hate anybody to think that the government has washed its hands to do with anything in relation to antisemitism because that’s absolutely not the case,” she added. 

Ms Donelan repeated to MPs that she was encouraging universities to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, but accepted “it is not the panacea to addressing this issue”. So far, 98 universities have adopted the wording. She said the government had asked the Office for Students to conduct a “scoping exercise” of universities yet to adopt the IHRA definition and consider requiring providers to produce figures on the number of antisemitism cases raised by staff and students. 

Mr Halfon interjected: “All the stuff you’re saying is just words, because if you can’t intervene… then it’s just words. [The university] has broken the IHRA modern definition of antisemitism. There have been some terrible things going on in terms of Jewish students. They feel unsafe. They feel unprotected. They feel that now the university is a hotbed of antisemitism. Yet all the government can do is say, ‘well, wait for review’.

“Surely you should look at things like funding or at least meet with the vice-chancellor and say what on earth is going on here?” 

The minister maintained that universities in England “are autonomous”  and that it is “important” the university lead its investigation into alleged wrong-doing. She later conceded that university autonomy would not preclude her from personally contacting Prof Brady to discuss the investigation.

All the stuff you’re saying is just words, because if you can’t intervene… then it’s just words
Robert Halfon, education select committee chair

Mr Halfon said it was his belief that the senior leadership team at the University of Bristol should resign “because they care nothing about antisemitism, they’re hiding behind employment law”. He implored Ms Donelan to “take a proactive role and do what you can to speak to the senior management tell them to get a grip and deal with this once and for all”.

Ms Donelan reiterated that universities should be “welcoming institutions for everybody from all walks of life” and that antisemitism “has no place in our universities”. She said the government had given money to the Union of Jewish Students “to assist with ensuring that campuses can be a safe place”. University Business has asked the Department for Education to clarify what this funding refers to, although it is likely to be the £500,000 announced by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government in January 2020 to support a three-year partnership with the Union of Jewish Students and the Holocaust Educational Trust. 

Committee member Jonathon Gullis called on the vice-chancellor of Warwick University, Stuart Croft, to resign over the handling of an antisemitism complaint against an academic, Goldie Osuri, which resulted in no further action. After concluding that Dr Osuri’s statement was an acceptable form of free speech, the university also investigated the reporting student after the lecturer accused them of “bullying and harassment and a defamation”. No further action was taken against the student.

“Stuart Croft, the vice-chancellor, was the biggest embarrassment to students at his university,” Mr Gullis said. “We need to go further than just fine, we need to start sacking people. Stuart Croft [and the academics involved in the handling of the complaint] need to go to be quite frank.”

In a letter to the Office for Students (OfS) in February, education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “If antisemitic incidents do occur at a provider, the OfS should consider if it is relevant in a particular case whether the provider has adopted the definition when considering what sanctions, including monetary penalties, would be appropriate to apply.”

The committee also asked the minister to comment on the Department for Education’s handling of higher education policy. 

On inflation in top entry grades

I must stress that this is a very different scenario to last year. Universities have been involved in the process of designing the alternative to exams from the off via their input into the consultation and our work with them.

On restrictions on over-recruitment this year

Last year, we introduced temporary student number caps to resolve the issue that you’ve identified. This year, we’re not seeing the same patterns that we did shaping up at the moment, but we will continue to monitor that and work with the sector to ensure that the whole sector can be taken forward throughout this journey.

On financial stability

At the moment, we don’t have any institution that is imminently about to go into financial liquidation. We set up a safety net called the restructuring regime where if an institution had explored all of the support available, including the job retention scheme and the loans available, they could enter into the restriction regime, where we could support them to utilise our team of experts.

Not one single university has taken up that opportunity, which I think speaks volumes. However, this is an evolving picture because we are still in a pandemic, and I continue to monitor it.

On minimum entry requirements

I do want to stress that the government is not proposing that all students need to get three Bs at A-level, for instance. This is about having the debate around minimum entry requirements, having a consultation to look at if we need some exemptions, making sure that there are other opportunities and options available for students that may need to gain other qualifications before entering higher education. We haven’t fixed this policy, we really do want to listen to the views.

Read more: 75,000 Covid cases associated with HE since August, DfE estimates

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