Jo Johnson concerned over rise in antisemitism on UK campuses

More than £4 million provided for projects combating hate - every student has right to study without fear of intimidation, says universities minister


Jo Johnson, the minister for universities and science, has expressed his concern at increased Jew-hatred on UK campuses, and described his efforts to combat it. 

In an exclusive interview with the JC, Mr Johnson said the rise in the number of antisemitic incidents was not acceptable. 

“Every student has a right to an environment in which they can study securely, without fear of harassment or intimidation of any sort, let alone based on their identity or their religion,” he explained

Mr Johnson added that he was “working hard to ensure that we have a university system in which closer connections are forged between universities and Jewish leaders, and [where] the proper training is taking place in institutions so that there is prompt and accurate reporting of incidents affecting Jewish students. 

“It’s unacceptable that we should have a situation in which less than half of Jewish students feel comfortable attending an NUS event, for example; that is clearly unacceptable. All student union events should be open to all students, and they should feel that to be a reality, not just something on paper.”

Mr Johnson was at the Limmud Festival, in Birmingham, to discuss the new ways in which the government will seek to ensure “freedom of speech within the law” at universities. He said he had been “delighted to be invited” to speak at the four-day event.

“This is my first time to the festival, and I’ve been reading about it”, he said. “It’s a real eye-opener to me to see the diversity of viewpoints being put forward. It incarnates, as a festival, a lot of what we want to see in our university system – a willingness to enter debate and a willingness to have robust, spirited discussion, in a civilised, constructive frame. And I think those are the values which are really important, and which we want our university system to be demonstrating as well.”

During his speech, in front of an audience of hundreds, Mr Johnson described how he had asked the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) to prioritise working with Universities UK, the representative body of the UK higher education sector, to counter bigotry on campuses.

He said: “As a result, they have provided over £4m funding for projects to tackle harassment and hate crime. This includes £1.8m of funding for over 40 universities and colleges for projects which aim to tackle online harassment and hate. 

“But there is much more to do.

“Universities cannot afford to be complacent about complying either with their duties to protect freedom of speech, or anything less than vigilant against hate speech (or other unlawful activity) masquerading as the exercise of the right to freedom of speech.”

He warned of the growing danger to freedom of speech at UK institutions, saying: “In universities in America and increasingly in the United Kingdom, there are countervailing forces of censorship, where groups have sought to stifle those who do not agree with them in every way under the banner of ‘safe spaces’ or ‘no-platforming’.

“However well-intentioned, the proliferation of such safe spaces, the rise of no-platforming, the removal of 'offensive' books from libraries and the drawing up of ever more extensive lists of banned ‘trigger’ words are undermining the principle of free speech in our universities.”

Mr Johnson said the new universities regulator, the Office for Students, which is due to be launched next week, would take a tough stance on attempts to limit free expression. 

He added: “As a condition of registration with the new regulator, we are proposing that all universities benefiting from public money must demonstrate a clear commitment to free speech in their governance documents. 

“The Office for Students will in turn use its regulatory powers to hold them to account for ensuring that lawful freedom of speech is upheld by their staff and students. 

“This is no authoritarian step. Nor is it somehow the ‘opposite’ of free speech, as has been suggested… On the contrary, it is simply government playing its part in actively creating the conditions necessary for our universities to serve as the vibrant free-trading marketplaces for ideas that we need them to be.”

Mr Johnson also told the audience that “there is no place in our society - including within higher education - for hatred or any form of discrimination or racism such as antisemitism”, citing examples such as swastikas drawn on campus at Exeter University and the October 2016 “violent anti-Israel protest at University College London, which left Jewish students barricaded in a room, after being told their safety could not be guaranteed if they left alone… 

“A racist and antisemitic environment is by definition an illiberal one that is totally antithetical to the idea of a university in a free society.”

He said he had been working hard to combat antisemitism on campus, describing how he had written “to Universities UK to ensure they had noted the government's adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. 

“At my request, this has been shared throughout the higher education sector. 

“It is essential that institutions must have robust procedures in place. I expect them to demonstrate how they will act quickly to investigate and address all allegations of hate crime, including allegations of antisemitism. 

“This is an integral part of ensuring they provide a safe and inclusive environment for all students and that students do not face discrimination, harassment or victimisation.”

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