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University of Bristol: Jewish Students

Volume 811: debated on Wednesday 24 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the statements by Professor David Miller about Jewish students; and what discussions they have had with (1) the University of Bristol, and (2) the police, about the steps being taken to ensure the safety of such students.

Universities are independent and autonomous organisations. Accordingly, the Government have not intervened directly in this case, but we consider that the University of Bristol could do more to make its condemnation of Professor Miller’s conduct clear to current and future students. Students also can and should inform the police if they believe that the law has been broken. Professor Miller has expressed some ill-founded and reprehensible views and the Government wholeheartedly reject them.

Academics do have freedom of speech, including to criticise Israel, but Professor Miller does not have the right to attack Jewish students as being part of an Israel lobby group that makes Arab and Muslim students unsafe. Bristol should not be employing someone to teach students wild conspiracy theories about Jewish people. His behaviour has resulted in Jewish students being subjected to weeks of harassment and abuse. Bristol must support its students and take this much more seriously.

The noble Lord gets to the nub of the issue with his questions. Academics of course have the right to espouse views that many might find offensive, perhaps even idiotic, and universities should be places where such views can be rigorously and vigorously debated. What makes this case concerning is Professor Miller’s comments about his own students, suggesting that their disagreement with his views is because they are political pawns of a foreign Government or part of a Zionist enemy, which has no place in any society. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism draws the important distinction between legitimate criticism of the Government of Israel and their policies and holding Jews collectively responsible for them. We are glad that the University of Bristol has adopted that definition and we hope that it will consider it carefully.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register, including the fact that I am on the advisory council of the Hillel foundation, which supports Jewish students at universities. Does the Minister agree that the failure of the university’s leadership to act to protect its own students, for whom it has a duty of care, breaches three out of the four regulatory objectives of the Office for Students? Can he provide reassurance that that will be taken into consideration in any evaluation by the Office for Students, which would also include addressing and evaluating the performance of the university leadership and confidence in its ability to continue to lead?

The noble Lord is right to say that providers have a duty of care to students, which the Government expect them to take very seriously. All registered higher education providers, including the University of Bristol, are subject to ongoing conditions of registration with the Office for Students, which is responsible for ensuring compliance with them. In addition, students can notify the Office for Students of any issues that they think may be of regulatory interest to it, and the OfS has provided a guide for students to support them in that process.

In a Written Answer to my noble friend Lord Austin last week, my noble friend the Minister said:

“All higher education providers should discharge their responsibilities fully and have robust policies and procedures in place to comply with the law”.

So will he or the Universities Minister now write to universities who employ the academics who signed a letter of support for Professor Miller of Bristol University, asking them what action they are taking in respect of those academics, who appear to be supporting Professor Miller’s anti-Semitism, as defined by the aforementioned IHRA?

Universities and other providers are independent institutions, responsible for their own staffing decisions and for meeting their duties under the law, regarding both freedom of expression and equality. However, the Government have been clear that we expect universities to be at the forefront of tackling anti-Semitism and ensuring that they provide a welcoming experience for all students. That is why my right honourable friend the Education Secretary wrote to providers, encouraging them to adopt the IHRA definition, as a result of which, I am pleased to say, more than 50 additional institutions have done so.

My Lords, on that point of a welcoming environment for Jewish students, the University of Bristol, in a statement on its investigation, said that its,

“clear and consistently held position is that bullying, harassment, and discrimination are never acceptable. We remain committed to providing a positive experience for all our students and staff, including by providing a welcoming environment for Jewish students”.

That is not happening at that university and, sadly, at all too many other universities. In a debate in January initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, who follows me today, she said that some universities were becoming no-go areas for Jewish students. This is surely intolerable. There is a systemic problem here and I should like to hear the Minister say how he is going to tackle that on a—

That is an extremely long question. Could I please ask noble Lords to keep their questions short, as a lot of people want to get in and express their views?

My Lords, the noble Baroness refers to the important, if dispiriting, debate held in Grand Committee in January this year, looking at instances of anti-Semitism in universities. The Government are very mindful of that, which is why my right honourable friend the Education Secretary has, in his most recent strategic guidance letter, asked the Office for Students to consider a scoping exercise to identify providers that are reluctant to adopt the IHRA definition.

Sadly, the situation at Bristol has been ongoing for over two years since students first complained and the university has stonewalled until this week. Jewish students have been verbally and physically abused at that university previously. The failure to act shows that anti-Semitism is not taken seriously. Had a professor hurled similar abuse and conspiracy theories at black students, he would have been off campus by the evening. Will the Minister ensure that the relevant student bodies take anti-Semitism as seriously as they do other forms of racism—namely the OfS, the National Union of Students and Universities UK?

My Lords, the Government most certainly take anti-Semitism seriously and my right honourable friend the Education Secretary’s letter also asked the Office for Students to consider introducing mandatory reporting by providers of anti-Semitic incident numbers, with the aim of ensuring a robust evidence base to make sure that appropriate action is being taken.

My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests. Does my noble friend agree that Bristol University adopting the IHRA working definition on anti-Semitism is only the first step? A work programme would reasonably seek to establish a safe space for Jewish students so that they can learn in a free and open environment. Bristol University has failed to offer safety, reassurance or even the slightest suggestion of competence. Does my noble friend agree that the university must condemn Professor Miller’s statement that Jewish students were directed by the Israeli Government and take the necessary action to restore the public’s lost confidence in Bristol University?

I first pay tribute to my noble friend’s work on the IHRA definition and getting a number of bodies, including Her Majesty’s Government, to sign up to it. He is right that adoption of that working definition is only a first step. While the Government think it is vital, it is not enough on its own. That is why we continue to work with the sector to make sure that it is doing everything it can to stamp out anti-Semitism.

I draw attention to my registered interests and very much welcome the Minister’s comments. Has he noted that Professor Miller has suggested that by joining a university Jewish society, students are thereby associating themselves with racism and Islamophobia? Will the Minister note that many students join Jewish societies because they wish to attend religious services or go to parties? They may simply wish to have a nourishing and regular bowl of chicken soup.

I completely agree with the noble Lord. That suggestion is at the heart of this issue because it implies that Professor Miller can understand the motivations or the political views of Jewish students at the University of Bristol who join a Jewish society. We think that is wrong and very ill-founded, and that is what causes us such concern in this case.

My Lords, this is an appalling case, but does the Minister share my concern that the Government’s proposals for free speech legislation run the risk of protecting statements that are anti-Semitic, offensive and dangerous? Will he clarify the role that the Government expect the free-speech champion to play in cases such as this? What protection and priority will be given to student welfare under the proposals to ensure that Jewish students do feel safe from anti-Semitic abuse?

My Lords, people go to university to be provoked and challenged and to come into contact with ideas and opinions that may be different from those that they have encountered before. They might find those ideas fatuous or even offensive, but that is part and parcel of the academic experience. Our proposals for a free-speech champion are to ensure that free speech is being protected on campus, that that essential part of university experience is maintained and that universities are balancing their legal obligations to safeguard freedom of expression while also tackling any abuse, harassment or intimidation of students, which is contrary to the law.

My Lords, I regret that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the third Oral Question, from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs.