Universities must take ‘action’ to ensure students are not harassed in protests

The Prime Minister has summoned vice-chancellors to a meeting to discuss antisemitism on campuses and the safety of Jewish students.

Students speaking at an encampment on the grounds of Cambridge University
Students speaking at an encampment on the grounds of Cambridge University (Joe Giddens/PA)

University leaders must take “robust action” to ensure Jewish students are not harassed, Downing Street has urged as students have set up encampments on campuses to protest against the war in Gaza.

The Prime Minister has summoned vice-chancellors to a meeting this week to discuss antisemitism on campuses and ensuring Jewish students are safe.

Students at Cambridge and Oxford universities are among the latest protesters to launch camps against the war in Gaza on university campuses.

Rishi Sunak opened Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting by saying there had been an “unacceptable rise in antisemitism on our university campuses” and vice-chancellors would be meeting to discuss “the need for our universities to be safe for our Jewish students”, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.

Students marching through Cambridge
Students marching through Cambridge (Joe Giddens/PA)

He said: “Our university campuses should be places of rigorous debate, but they should also be tolerant places where people of all communities, particularly Jewish students at this time, are treated with respect.”

Protesters have set up tents outside universities across the UK, including Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle, after unrest at similar sites in the US.

Asked what the Prime Minister’s message was to students involved in the protests, the spokesman said: “The right to free speech does not include the right to harass people or incite violence.

“We expect university leaders to take robust action in dealing with that kind of behaviour and that will be the subject of the conversation in No 10 later this week to ensure a zero-tolerance approach to this sort of behaviour is adopted on all campuses.”

Pressed on whether police should be called in to clear protest camps, the spokesman said: “We want to see university leaders taking a robust approach to unacceptable behaviour.”

More than 100 people attended a demonstration outside King’s College, Cambridge, on Tuesday – where a protester with a megaphone by the encampment led a chant of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.

Protesters with Palestine flags and placards marched from the encampment to deliver their demands to the University of Cambridge.

A Cambridge student, who did not wish to be named, described herself as “part of a global collective which is a struggle for Palestinian liberation”.

The student said the protesters were demanding that the university “disclose all of its research collaborations and financial ties with companies and institutions complicit in Israel’s genocide and then to divest from these”.

“We will be staying here until our demands are met,” she said.

Students from the University College London (UCL) took part in a rally outside Downing Street on Tuesday to protest against the war in Gaza.

More pro-Palestinian protests are likely to be held on university campuses in the upcoming days, organisers have suggested.

Stella Swain, youth and student campaigns officer at the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), told the PA news agency: “I would anticipate students being inspired by what they’ve seen, and more and more springing up over the next week or so.”

When asked about concerns about antisemitism, Ms Swain added: “Every single encampment that I have spoken to has a complete zero tolerance policy for all forms of racism.

“I’d say the encampments are completely safe for Jewish students.”

But the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) has said previously that the protests create a “hostile and toxic atmosphere” on campus for Jewish students.

Edward Isaacs, president of the UJS, said: “As the encampment protests expand across several campuses, including at Oxford and Cambridge, it is deeply concerning to see the increasingly hateful language emanating from these protests.”

He added: “University inaction against such rhetoric only serves to alienate Jewish students from campus, they must act to safeguard Jewish life on campus.”

A spokesperson for Universities UK (UUK) said: “Universities are monitoring the small number of encampments which have appeared on UK campuses.

“Universities work hard to strike the right balance between ensuring the safety of all students and staff, preventing harassment, and supporting peaceful and legitimate protests on campus.

“Mature dialogue between students and universities on site has so far limited any significant escalation.”

Police cleared a pro-Palestinian tent encampment at the University of Chicago on Tuesday amid tensions on US campuses over the war in Gaza.

Students at an encampment on the grounds of Cambridge University, protesting against the war in Gaza
Students at an encampment on the grounds of Cambridge University, protesting against the war in Gaza (Joe Giddens/PA)

An University and College Union (UCU) spokesperson said: “It has been shocking to witness militarised police forces invited onto campuses in the United States to violently shut down peaceful dissent.

“As peaceful encampments and occupations spread across Britain, we call on vice-chancellors to take a different approach.

“We are clear that antisemitism and Islamophobia have no place on our campuses or in our society, but freedom of speech and freedom of assembly within the law are fundamental human rights and civil liberties which must be upheld.”

An University of Cambridge spokesperson said: “The university is fully committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech within the law and we acknowledge the right to protest.

“We ask everyone in our community to treat each other with understanding and empathy. Our priority is the safety of all staff and students.

“We will not tolerate antisemitism, Islamophobia and any other form of racial or religious hatred, or other unlawful activity.”