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Racism (Universities)

Volume 462: debated on Friday 29 June 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jonathan Shaw.]

I am pleased to have secured an Adjournment debate on the important subject of tackling racism in universities, in particular on the proposed University and College Union’s boycott of Israeli academics, although I am disappointed that in this day and age the issue should need to be debated at all. There is no place for racism anywhere in British society, but it is a particular affront to that society that any racism should persist in our universities.

This subject is hedged in by considerable complexity, not least caused by the need to protect academic freedoms from the clunking fist of Government. Nevertheless, the volume of legislation available to prevent racism on university campuses is considerable. The Race Relations Act 1976 obliges higher education institutions to promote race equality and good relations between different racial groups. The Public Order Act 1986 made incitement to racial hatred a crime, and that provision was buttressed in 2001, and again by the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. To those we can add the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which introduced racially aggravated offences, and the Equality Act 2006, to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief. If I have missed out any law, I hope that the Minister will correct my omission when he replies.

However, I question whether that superabundance of legislation has borne any fruit. In fact, it may well be something of a hindrance to universities seeking to form policies to tackle racism. From prodigal law it is an easy step to profligate guidance. In November, for example, the Minister issued guidance on how universities should promote good campus relations and tackle violent Islamic extremism. I hope that when he replies, he will be able to update the House on the reception of that guidance by the academic community and outline any further steps that he proposes to take with regard to monitoring the growth of Islamic extremism on our campuses.

Islamic extremism is just one facet of the threat that racism poses to university life. Another, and one that has captured the headlines in recent weeks, as well as providing the catalyst for this debate, is anti-Semitism in British universities. I feel obliged to say that it has captured the headlines for all the wrong reasons. At the end of March the Government responded to the report of the all-party parliamentary group on anti-Semitism. I pay tribute to all the members of the group that produced that report. They have focused attention on an increasingly worrying issue.

Unfortunately, there have been few if any headlines that focus on the report’s concern that police forces are not comprehensively and consistently tackling anti-Semitic incidents; that the Crown Prosecution Service undertakes few prosecutions for racially motivated offences; or that the Home Office does not seem to have conducted dedicated research into the prevalence of anti-Semitism. The headlines have instead focused on the decision by the University and College Union to allow its members to discuss proposals for a boycott of Israeli academics. That shift in focus is unfortunate, because the all-party parliamentary group’s report devoted an entire chapter to the rise of anti-Semitism on university campuses. Anti-Semitism is a serious and growing concern for Jewish students.

As the Union of Jewish Students told the all-party parliamentary group’s inquiry:

“Jewish students have become increasingly alarmed by virulent and unbalanced attacks on the state of Israel, and the failure of student bodies and organisations to clearly and forcefully condemn anti-Semitism when it occurs.”

The UCU’s stance on a potential boycott of Israeli academics is the crowning failure of responsible leadership. I agree with the principle that university governance is, rightly, independent of the Government, but there is also the principle that academic freedom rests on a compact in which society chooses not to intrude on universities, and universities in turn do not seek to carry out a foreign policy. The proposed UCU boycott undermines that very principle. Tony Blair went as far as he could while he was still Prime Minister to register his disapproval of the decision that the UCU had taken.

I pay tribute to the Minister for his commitment to countering the harm done by the UCU to the image of British academia abroad during his recent visit to Israel. I am also grateful for his steadfast reiteration of the Government’s position at yesterday’s Education and Skills questions. I was particularly struck by his observation that

“Education must be a bridge between different peoples, and not a subject of conflict.”—[Official Report, 28 June 2007; Vol. 462, c. 454.]

When he replies, I hope that he will spend a little time developing his idea to hold a seminar in London involving Palestinian, Israeli and British academics. That would be a powerful symbol, and I welcome the idea.

I hope that the Minister also agrees that independence from Government imposes responsibilities on both universities and any organisations that purport to speak for either students or lecturers. If lecturers, in particular, cannot lead by example, then all the guidance and legislation in the world will not make a jot of difference to campus racism. Indeed, as one professor wrote to me recently:

“there should in my view be much more condemnation of academic leaders for failing to assail this movement—Dante on the hottest places in hell being reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in time of great moral crisis comes to mind.”

The boycott of Israeli academics has a long and sordid history. Harvard law professor Allan Dershowitz wrote in an article for The Times that

“the academic boycott resonates with earlier boycotts of Jews. The history of anti-Semitism is in part the history of boycotts of Jews.”

Both the Association of University Teachers and NATFHE have previously proposed a boycott of Israeli academics. The NATFHE motion two years ago called for a boycott of Israeli academics who did not

“distance themselves from their government”,

although how they were supposed to do that without the revival of the Zionist equivalent of the Test Acts was, to the best of my knowledge, left unexplained.

I want to contrast the laudable motion 193 passed at the NATFHE conference in 2005, which suggested inter alia that the union should

“develop programmes with the Commission for Racial Equality and The Board of Deputies of British Jews to educate academics and students about the dangers of anti-Semitism”,

with the myopic, morally repugnant and intellectually bankrupt motion 30 from the UCU’s most recent annual conference. That motion

“condemns the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation”

of the Palestinian territories but fancifully supposes that

“criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-Semitic”.

Those claims are extraordinary, and they are both lazy and dangerous.

As a member of the alumni board of Harvard university, I am acutely aware that the issue has also raised its head on the other side of the Atlantic. In 2002, Larry Summers, the president of Harvard university, deplored the fact that by arguing that Israel should be the target of boycott and divestment policies

“serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent.”

It is just a little too easy and glib to say that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, because the odd terminological inexactitude will swiftly turn one into the other.

I pay tribute to representatives from my other alma mater, Oxford university, for attempting to expunge some of the historical rhetoric with an amendment to the motion, but the fact remains that the whole enterprise was never anything more than an example of gesture politics writ large. It wrongly imposes collective responsibility on academics, it is replete with double standards, and it has the ironic impact of silencing legitimate criticism from within the Israeli academic community. As another Newmark, who is the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, but no relation of mine, has said:

“this is a full-frontal assault on academic freedom”

and it

“damages the credibility of British academia as a whole.”

I would add to that sentiment the observation of my own rabbi, Thomas Salamon, who wrote to me:

“boycotts are like book burnings, which indicate the will and force to stifle all debate and thought. Boycotts of this nature endanger democracy and lead to hegemony and suppression of freedoms, only recently thrown off in Eastern Europe. To bunch all Israeli academics together is both against reason and common sense.”

As an advocate of wider engagement throughout the middle east, it pains me that an influential group of people should be seriously advocating disengagement with Israel. When the AUT last proposed a boycott of Israeli academics, the philosophical objection was summed up by the 21 Noble laureates who signed a joint letter that averred:

“academic freedom has never been the property of a few and must not be manipulated by them…mixing science with politics, and limiting academic freedom by boycotts is wrong.”

I wonder how many Nobel laureates voted in favour of the UCU’s motion. That motion is all the more dangerous because it establishes such a poor moral tone for UK academia. When it comes to discouraging racism, intolerance and prejudice in British universities, students have a right to expect strong leadership and high moral tone from their lecturers and their own representatives, as well as from Government.

The proposed boycott by UCU members has cast a long shadow and points to a grave weakness in the architecture for dealing with the difficult interface between legitimate expression and religious discrimination that exists today in UK universities. It has also exposed a failure of leadership which cannot help but strike at the heart of any policy aimed at tackling racism. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) recently characterised the quality of that leadership, in his usual forthright manner, as

“the vapourings of 158 overgrown student politicians.”

He is right. He joined the unequivocal condemnation by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts).

Universities UK, through the equality challenge unit, is committed to the challenge of stamping out racism in all its many forms. I hope that the Minister will be able to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to supporting it in that task. Although the unit takes no official position on the UCU boycott debate, it is clearly crucial to the fight against racism and anti-Semitism in our universities. When the question of university anti-Semitism was debated in another place earlier this month, the chief executive of Universities UK, Baroness Warwick, gave a commitment that the unit would publish updated guidance to universities that focused on religion-related hate crimes. I very much hope that that guidance will prove decisive in addressing aspects of racism such as anti-Semitism, which are so often out of the limelight because they are harder to identify and, perhaps, easier to overlook.

The last thing that universities need is more interference from Government. However, does the Minister believe that there is any scope for the new Department responsible for higher education and skills to consolidate the guidance, if not the legislation, that applies to campus racism? On the one hand we have guidance coming from the Government on how to deal with Islamic extremism; on the other, we have forthcoming guidance from the equality challenge unit on religious hate crimes. My concern is that university vice-chancellors are already bewildered by their responsibilities and their powers to combat racism, and that continuing to address the issue piecemeal will do little to improve the situation for students. Perhaps the Minister could also confirm what is being done to bolster the enforcement of existing legislation in order to crack down on campus racism.

As Baroness Deech said in another place during the debate on anti-Semitism,

“Universities are like the canary in the mine when it comes to bad indications.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 June 2007; Vol. 692, c. 1661.]

I encourage colleagues on both sides of the House to signal their support for academic freedom and contempt for anti-Semitism, in all its guises, by signing early-day motion 1603. I also hope that students and lecturers will act decisively to bury this sordid subject once and for all by supporting the “Stop the Boycott” campaign through the website

It appears that there is still something of a bad smell caused by prejudice and racism in British universities, but I hope for a breath of fresh air from the UCU, so that the canary will live to see the light of day.

I genuinely congratulate the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) on securing the debate on an extremely important issue. Given recent events, which he mentioned in his speech, we have a timely opportunity to debate the matter.

I have made it clear in the House and elsewhere that the Government are strongly committed to academic freedom. In that context, we are firmly against the motion for academic boycotts of Israel or Israeli academics.

Although I respect the University and College Union’s independence, I was disappointed—as I made clear—when it passed a motion that encourages its members to consider boycotting Israeli academics and education institutions. I know that the UCU is still debating the matter. However, it is ironic that the UCU debate may ultimately result in stifling valuable and important dialogue in the future if a boycott is instituted. I profoundly believe that such a boycott would do nothing to promote the middle east peace process. Indeed, I believe that it would do the reverse. That is the fundamental problem.

As the hon. Gentleman said, I recently visited Israel and East Jerusalem, which is part of the occupied Palestinian territories. During my visit, I talked to members of the Israeli Government, including the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Mrs. Livni and the Minister of Education, Yuli Tamir.

I also met academics and students at the Hebrew university of Jerusalem and senior Palestinian academics at Al-Quds university. My strong message—that our Government, universities and academics are dedicated to ensuring that communication channels between our countries are kept open—was well received. I was also able to present, on several occasions, my strongly held view that there are progressives and reactionaries in Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories, and that the problem with boycotts is that they make the job of the progressives much harder and reinforce the position of those who wish to take a hard line.

I profoundly believe that education, rather than being a tool to divide us, should help people understand and genuinely connect with each other. It relies on open dialogue. Although discussion and partnership alone will not resolve conflicts in the middle east, there is little hope without them. Education as a means of dialogue is crucial.

Academic boycotts are an anathema to the spirit of collaboration that runs through higher education, especially at a time when higher education is becoming a truly global activity. Across the world, universities are building transnational research links. They are enabling the flow of students and staff between institutions and countries. That is fundamentally a force for good, which expands human knowledge, helps us tackle the great challenges of our time, such as terrorism and climate change, enables millions of people to fulfil their potential, renews communities and builds prosperity.

The Government will therefore continue to explore contacts and engagements with Israeli and Palestinian academics now and in the future. Yesterday, I said during Question Time that, while I was in Israel and the occupied territories, I floated the idea, which we are taking forward, of a conference in London involving Israeli, Palestinian and British academics about the concept of the globalisation of higher education. I do not want to overstate the importance of that initiative but I hope that, symbolically, it can demonstrate the way in which education can and should bring people together.

I welcome the opposition to an academic boycott from across the higher education sector in this country, whether from individual academics or higher education representative groups such as Universities UK, the Russell group, the 1994 group and also—importantly—the National Union of Students. During my visit to Israel and the occupied territories, I was pleased to be accompanied by Professor Drummond Bone, the vice-chancellor of Liverpool university and the president of Universities UK, who, alongside me, was sending out a strong message against the concept of an academic boycott.

It is argued that the UCU boycott move is not motivated by anti-Semitism. However, such specific targeting of Israel can often have a worryingly negative effect on all Jewish people. Many Israelis feel that they are being singled out in a way that other regimes that are not democracies and that have significantly poor human rights records are not. That is one of the problems with the notion of the boycott.

The broader issues that the hon. Gentleman raises are very important to the Government. We deplore all acts of racial or religious intolerance in British society and throughout our higher education system. We are committed to tackling racism, including anti-Semitism. I wholly agree with him when he states that there is no place for racism in our society. It is vital that we continue to engage in open, challenging discussions about racism in our society, and most importantly that we do what we can to eliminate it.

While it is right that people should have the ability to criticise Israeli foreign policy—or, indeed, the foreign policy of any country—it causes me grave concern to hear about instances of anti-Semitism on university campuses. We expect our universities to take the lead in progressive thinking and behaviour. We welcome challenging debate, diverse opinions and disagreements, but not the toxic stirring up of hatred or the deplorable harassment of individuals or groups based on their race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality.

It is right that we have a strong legislative framework in place. As well as ensuring due protection to individuals from harm and harassment, it also provides a framework for positive action. It is also right that higher education institutions, as autonomous bodies, are independently answerable to the law and responsible for fulfilling their legal duties with regard to equality and diversity. The law helps us, and I disagree with the hon. Gentleman when he says that it can be a hindrance to enforcing efforts to tackle racism.

The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, which amended the Race Relations Act 1976, was a catalyst in the higher education sector. It ensured that the sector took active responsibility for these matters and that higher education institutions developed a more open and transparent approach to eliminating discrimination. The Act contains practical specifications for implementing change in its duties. The Act also places a positive general duty on all higher education institutions to promote race equality. Those institutions, in all their identified relevant functions, must have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination, to promote equality of opportunity and to support good race relations between people of different racial groups. All such institutions must have a race equality policy and an action plan outlining how they are to meet the duty and where further work is required. Having such a framework is genuinely helpful.

Does the Minister honestly believe that Hizb ut-Tahrir promotes racial harmony on university campuses?

The hon. Gentleman knows that, across government, we keep the issue of Hizb ut-Tahrir under review; that is the right thing to do. There is certainly a responsibility on university institutions to act in accordance with the law and to tackle racism.

The Act to which I was referring has also committed all public authorities to a proactive approach. In higher education, this has helped to overturn the attitude that racism did not exist in the sector. The Act requires all higher education institutions thoroughly to examine their policies and activity and to assess their impact on different groups, highlighting areas where action is needed. That is an ongoing process for higher education institutions, which must continue to address emerging issues. That includes taking on board the recommendations of the all-party inquiry into tackling anti-Semitism, as part of holistic work on addressing racism and discrimination.

The Government will continue working on the issues of equality and diversity. We are committed to undertaking a review of discrimination law, and our aim is to consolidate and simplify existing legislation, and extend its operation as appropriate into a single equality Bill.

I wholeheartedly support the work of the Equality Challenge Unit. It provides vital advice and guidance to higher education institutions in their mission to promote equality and diversity. It has helped those institutions take forward their duties under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. It establishes dialogue groups for staff and students on race equality, religion and belief issues, which will help the sector further. Importantly, the Union of Jewish Students, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies and the Board of Deputies of British Jews have been invited to participate in those groups.

The guidance provided by both the Department and from within the sector has helped higher education institutions both to understand and to act on the legislative requirements and the complex issues relating to equality and diversity. The Equality Challenge Unit is also in the process of updating the good campus relations guidance, which will be published in July. Again, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman: I think that there is consistency between that piece of work and the guidance issued by the Government. The ECU guidance specifically refers to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and will provide examples of activity undertaken by universities to address some of the issues raised by the all-party inquiry. Today, Universities UK and the Association of Managers of Student Services in Higher Education are hosting a conference that will explore the issue of tackling discrimination on campus.

The hon. Gentleman asked me specifically about the Department’s guidance to institutions on tackling extremism in the name of Islam. It is fair to say that that received a mixed reception, with a lot of support, but also some concerns arising out of a misperception—mainly due to media misrepresentation—that it was an attempt to curtail freedom of expression. Let me make it abundantly clear that our intention was never to inhibit anyone’s ability to criticise Government policy, either domestic or international. The aim of the guidance was rather to tackle the very small minority of individuals who advocate violent extremism. Universities and academics now recognise that. We consulted widely, and regularly with Universities UK, while we developed that guidance. We will continue to work with sector organisations to develop further guidance where appropriate.

On the prevalence of extremism on campus, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, it is important to make clear that the risk of such activity is serious, but it is not, in my view, widespread. My officials are working with a range of university, faith, student and Government organisations to develop new projects and links to existing work on promoting good inter-faith and community relations on campus.

I genuinely believe that the debate has been, and continues to be, extremely important. There are concerns, but the idea that the middle east peace process can be enhanced in any way through an academic boycott is, in my judgment, foolhardy in the extreme, counter-productive, and will do nothing to achieve the ends that, on the face of it, are put forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Three o’clock.