Sunak faces opposition from university vice-chancellors as student protests sweep Britain

By Elizabeth Short
May 8, 2024

RISHI SUNAK faces opposition from university vice-chancellors as he tries to convene them to quell Palestine protests, with student-led demonstrations surging across Europe.

Students have set up encampments across the continent to call for a ceasefire and demand that universities sever ties with companies complicit in Israel’s war against Gaza.

But the demonstrations have faced ever more authoritarian reactions from police.

On Monday evening, Dutch police broke up an encampment at the University of Amsterdam and arrested 169 people.

Videos showed police hitting protesters with batons, before forces tore down the camp with bulldozers.

In Paris, 86 people were arrested at the Sorbonne University on Tuesday night after protesters occupied a lecture hall.

The same day in Berlin, police dragged students from an encampment at the Freie University.

Two dozen tents at a solidarity camp were cleared by force. The German government is currently planning to introduce new rules that enable students to be expelled on political grounds.

In the US, administrators at several universities have called in the police who have responded with military-grade tactics.

SWAT officers stormed an encampment on Tulane University’s campus in New Orleans with guns drawn.

US police have detained over 2,000 people nationwide at college protests in the past fortnight.

Activists across Britain have joined the wave of demonstrations and set up camps outside universities including in Manchester, Sheffield and London.

Around 40 tents have been erected outside King’s College in Cambridge, while another camp was set up outside Oxford’s Museum of Natural History.

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A joint statement issued by Oxford Action for Palestine and Cambridge for Palestine said that “Oxbridge’s profits cannot continue to climb at the expense of Palestinian lives.”

They called for the universities to stop giving the Israeli government “financial and moral support.”

The universities have long engaged with companies that supply arms to Israel including BAE Systems and Raytheon.

Cambridge Jews for Justice supported the protest, saying they refuse to accept the university’s “commitment to murder and bloodshed as the status quo.”

A Cambridge University spokesperson said: “The university is fully committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech within the law and we acknowledge the right to protest.”

Prime Minister Mr Sunak has summoned vice-chancellors to a meeting this week to discuss the protests. He said there had been an “unacceptable rise in anti-semitism.”

Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said that vice-chancellors would be meeting to discuss “the need for our universities to be safe for our Jewish students.”

A spokesperson for the University of Aberdeen, where students have also set up an encampment, said that its vice-chancellor would not be attending the meeting at No 10, and that the university “respects and supports the right to peaceful and lawful protest.”

They added: “Our campus should be a safe space for all and we are clear that any incidents of harassment or discrimination will not be tolerated.”

A group of students from Edinburgh University Justice for Palestine Society have been on hunger strike for four days, and have been protesting outside the university’s Old College.

In a statement, vice-chancellor of the university Sir Peter Mathieson told students “we fully recognise the strength of feeling that you have demonstrated with your actions” and said that the university has “no current plans to disrupt your encampment provided that it does not unduly interfere with the activities of the university and its community.”

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When asked whether police could be called in to clear protest camps, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “We want to see university leaders taking a robust approach to unacceptable behaviour.”

A spokesperson for academics’ union UCU said that it was “shocking to witness militarised police forces invited onto campuses in the United States to violently shut down peaceful dissent.

“As peaceful encampments and occupations spread across Britain, we call on vice-chancellors to take a different approach.

“In standing with the Palestinian people, students and staff taking part in encampments and peaceful protests on campuses across North America and now Britain and Europe are defending the core values of higher learning: freedom, democracy, and human dignity.”

Stella Swain, youth and student campaigns officer at the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), said: “University vice-chancellors should be taking student demands seriously, and thinking carefully about which side of history they want to be on: these students are protesting for peace and freedom against genocide.

“Universities should be places for education, not funders for war.”

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