British Education Secretary tells Vice-Chancellors to close down debate

Secretary of State for Education Gillian Keegan has circulated advice to Vice-Chancellors of breath-taking one-sidedness on how they should handle any campus fallout from the current violence in and around Gaza.

Her letter can be found here. In the wake of the Hamas attacks and the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, Keegan expresses deep concern for the hurt of Jewish students, but none at all for the hundreds of Palestinian students at UK universities, many of whom will have relatives currently in mortal danger. And she wants Vice-Chancellors to intervene to limit free speech about Gaza on campus. First signs are that some have taken up this challenge with alacrity.

BRICUP has sent the Vice-Chancellors a corrective, reproduced below. 


24 October 2023

Dear Vice-Chancellor

You, along with other Vice-Chancellors, will have received a letter, dated 11 October, from Gillian Keegan MP, Secretary of State for Education, and co-signed by Robert Halfon MP, Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education. Their letter seeks to direct you on how your University should respond internally to the disastrous events in Israel-Palestine. It also expresses repeated concern for the welfare of Jewish students, and urges you to “act swiftly and decisively against any threats, be they implicit or explicit, to their safety and welfare”, and “to actively provide Jewish students with the reassurance they need”.

There can be no doubt that all UK universities will concur with these recommendations, and would have pursued them even in the absence of a letter from the Secretary of State. There are, however, other statements in Gillian Keegan’s letter that are unworthy of her office, as well as glaring omissions.

The principal omission is the absence of any call for concern for the feelings and welfare of the several hundred Palestinians studying at UK universities. The horrendous violence against Israeli civilians on 7th October is etched on all our memories. By the time Secretary of State Keegan sent her letter, however,

· the number of Palestinian civilian deaths from indiscriminate Israeli bombardment of Gaza was already over 1000, with over 5000 injured; as I write the toll is approaching 6000 deaths (60 percent of whom are women and children), as well as three times as many wounded, and is still rising; and

· the Secretary of State cannot have been unaware of the announcement two days earlier by the Israeli Defence Minister of a “total” blockade of the Gaza Strip, cutting supplies of electricity, food and fuel to all its inhabitants, whom he described as “human animals”.

Gaza is largely populated by the families of refugees from the 1948 Palestinian Nakba. Many, probably most, Palestinian students will have close relatives in Gaza. Their ongoing nightmare as the death and injury toll rises clearly calls for care and compassion from those who run our educational institutions. The absence of any acknowledgement of their situation in the Secretary of State’s letter reveals it as unconcerned with the universal provision of pastoral care, a duty which she evidently wishes to see subordinated to a political agenda.

Neither Palestine nor Gaza are even mentioned in the letter. Palestinian students, however, are not quite absent – the one mention of them is in the context of reports of “inflammatory messages that show support for Hamas” which she notes is a proscribed terrorist organisation. The conflation of Palestinians with Hamas, evident in her one reference to the former, is exactly the implicit and sometimes explicit Israeli justification for the indiscriminate terror now being rained down on the inhabitants of Gaza.

It is not only Palestine and Gaza that is missing from the letter that Gillian Keegan has sent you. The Israeli occupation of indisputably Palestinian land is notable for its absence, as is the reduction of Palestinians to second class citizenship, a condition given formal constitutional underpinning by Israel’s Nation State Law adopted in 2018. The regime under which Palestinians live is now designated by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the most distinguished Israeli human rights organisations as one of apartheid. The existence of Hamas is in more than one way a direct product of Israeli policies. The unequivocal condemnation of Hamas’s attacks is not matched by any acknowledgement, let alone a condemnation, of Israel’s violations of both international law and human rights that have closed off non-violent routes to change for the Palestinians.

The Secretary of State’s letter is consistent with the message now coming from several Ministers and from a major section of the press and media. This is to close down the voices both of Palestinians and of those who support their rights. Chants which express an aspiration to a unified land of Palestine, and even the display of the Palestinian flag, should be criminalised. The threat of deportation for students on security grounds, we are told, is being investigated by the Home Office. This is the context in which you and other Vice Chancellors are being enjoined both to monitor and to intervene in invitations from members of the university to speakers on the crisis in Israel/Palestine.

Gillian Keegan’s letter to you and other Vice-Chancellors is an implicit assault on freedom of expression on campuses (in contradiction to the Government’s own recent legislation on this matter). It threatens both the independence of universities, and the research freedom of their academic staff. In sum it constitutes an inappropriate political intervention into the operational decisions of universities.

For a more balanced approach to the challenges with which the present crisis confronts UK universities we would point to the recent statements of the University and College Union, the University of Oxford and others. See also the statement of Universities UK on 18 October 2023, reproduced below, which avoids the politicised approach that permeates Gillian Keegan’s advice.

Yours sincerely

Jonathan Rosenhead

Chair, British Committee for the Universities of Palestine


UUK statement and resources related to conflict in the Middle East

Statement published 18 October 2023

Campus communities across the UK will be deeply affected by the terrorist attacks by Hamas and Israel’s military response, and the tragic loss of civilian life.

We believe that our priority as Universities UK, and the priority of our member universities, is to ensure that our campuses remain safe for all our students and staff. We will do everything we can to prevent hate crime, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and intolerance, and support our universities to respond appropriately if incidents involving these take place. In line with the sector’s clear commitment to freedom of speech, it is important that universities enable and support students and staff to debate and discuss this crisis, and the most challenging issues it raises, within the law, and with respect and tolerance.

Universities UK has produced guidance on freedom of speech on campus, and on tackling antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of harassment, and we have recirculated this guidance in the last week. We have been clear that Hamas is a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK and signalling support, including moral support or expressing an opinion or belief that is supportive, is a criminal offence, as outlined in the Terrorism Act (2000).

We will continue to bring universities together to share their approaches to managing campus relations in this extremely difficult period.