The universities minister has faced calls to take tougher action to ensure Jewish students are protected from antisemitism on campus, with one senior MP comparing the situation to “1930s Germany”.
MPs pressed Michelle Donelan to adopt a more heavy-handed approach – such as cutting off their funding or removing senior leaders – when universities fail to address reports of alleged antisemitism.
Education Select Committee chairman Robert Halfon urged ministers not to “wash their hands” of concerns from Jewish university students, including those at the University of Bristol.
An investigation was launched by the University of Bristol last month after one of its academics, Professor David Miller, received a barrage of criticism for comments he allegedly made about Israel.
Peers heard that the university lecturer’s behaviour had led to Jewish students “being subjected to weeks of harassment and abuse”.
Senior Tory MP Mr Halfon highlighted the incident – which he condemned as “appalling” and “a disgrace” – during an Education Select Committee session with the universities minister on Tuesday.
Addressing Ms Donelan, he said: “Students should not feel that they’re living in 1930s Germany who go to Bristol University and other universities.
“I think it’s become such a serious national issue, been raised in Parliament a number of times, that you should take a proactive role and do what you can to speak to the senior management and tell them to get a grip and deal with this once and for all.”
But Ms Donelan said she was “not washing her hands” of the issue as she stressed that incidents of antisemitism at universities was “an area of focus” for the Government.
In October, Gavin Williamson warned that universities could have their funding cut if they refused to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.
Ms Donelan told MPs on the education select committee that 98 universities had now signed up to adopt the internationally recognised definition.
She said: “Antisemitism is abhorrent in universities and we have been working to encourage as many as possible to sign the IHRA definition, which Bristol already had done and that highlights the fact that that’s not the panacea to addressing this issue.
“In regards to specific cases, the Government doesn’t comment. There’s an investigation going on in Bristol and I believe it’s still live.
“And I would urge Bristol University to ensure that is as thorough as possible because some of the reports that have come out are extremely concerning.”
Mr Halfon said: “There’s been some awful things going on in terms of Jewish students. They feel unsafe, they feel unprotected, they feel that now the university is a a hotbed of antisemitism, and yet all the Government can do is say ‘we’ll wait for a review and not intervene’.
“I mean, surely you should look at things like funding, or at least meet with the vice-chancellor early on and say ‘What on earth is going on here? Why do thousands of Jewish students feel that Bristol University is not a safe place for Jews?’.”
He added: “There’s nothing to stop you picking up the phone and saying to the vice-chancellor ‘What on earth is going on? Get your act together. Do something. Protect these students which is your duty to protect them.’ Rather than to wash your hands of it and say they’re autonomous.”
Meanwhile, Jonathan Gullis, Conservative MP for Stoke on Trent North, called for academics who have allegedly made antisemitic comments to be sacked, and for the Office for Students (OfS) to be able to remove vice-chancellors from their posts if they fail to tackle antisemitism.
He said: “Until we start bringing that kind of scrutiny and action into our university sector, like you would do if you were in a primary or secondary school, these incidents will keep happening.”
But Ms Donelan said: “We can’t sack professors, or people like that, because we are not their employers and this is the difference with the university sector because they are autonomous we haven’t actually hired them.”
However, she added: “I agree with you that certain universities do need to go further on this area and it is deeply concerning that Jewish students feel put off from applying to certain universities. That’s not modern Britain and that’s not the country that we all want to live in.”
Mr Gullis added: “Rules need to be put in place that these people can be got rid of. At the very least, the head of the Office for Students (OfS) should be able, in my opinion, to remove vice-chancellors if they’re not upholding the protection of students, particularly those who are Jewish where we see time and time again antisemitism rife in the university sector and I think it’s an absolute abomination in modern society that this is still going on.”
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