Rishi Sunak tells university chiefs there is no place for hate on campuses amid Pro-Palestine protests

Rishi Sunak on Thursdy urged university chiefs to take personal responsibility for ensuring that campus pro-Gaza protests do not turn into hateful or intimidatory clashes.

In a No10 meeting with vice-chancellors, the Prime Minister hailed British universities as some of the best in the world and beacons of free speech.

“They must also be places of tolerance and respect where students of all backgrounds feel safe,” he added.

He said that given the conflict in the Middle East, the strength of feeling among students and others on the issue was understandable. But Mr Sunak added: “That does not leave any place for hateful behaviour, intimidatory behaviour or glorification of terrorism. We can’t pander to protesters making unreasonable demands.”

He said that university bosses had the Government’s backing to stamp out demonstrations getting out of control.

University leaders arrive at Downing Street on Thursday (Yui Mok/PA Wire)
University leaders arrive at Downing Street on Thursday (Yui Mok/PA Wire)

The Prime Minister also highlighted evidence of a rise in antisemitic incidents on university campuses and called for tough disciplinary action for anyone inciting violence.

Mr Sunak was at the 90-minute meeting for around 20 minutes, with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, Communities Secretary Michael Gove and security minister Tom Tugendhat.

Before it started at around 9am, Ms Keegan said that university bosses needed to do more to stop pro-Gaza protests erupting into violence on campuses as had happened in America.Some vice-chancellors, she explained, were already taking sufficient action but others were struggling to ensure all students were in a safe environment.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)

She told Times Radio: “Some of the vice-chancellors have taken very clear action, some of them have taken actions that we think are perhaps not the right actions. So, we just want to share that best practice, discuss how we can show leadership on this issue.

“We do not want our universities and campuses to be like those that we see on our television screens in other parts of the world, like the US.”

Vice-chancellors admitted that there were some troubling incidents but stressed that they were taking the protests seriously. ID checks on some students were taking place to stop other people infiltrating the demonstrations.

University bosses were working with student unions to try to ensure protests remained peaceful. The meeting came after pro-Palestine encampments were set up by students at more than a dozen universities across the UK against the war in Gaza, including Cambridge, Oxford, Goldsmiths, University of London as well as SOAS in the capital.

Police have clashed with protesters in the US (AFP via Getty Images)
Police have clashed with protesters in the US (AFP via Getty Images)

But so far the violent scenes have not spread across the Atlantic from the US.

In the Autumn Statement in November, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced that £7 million of extra support would be committed to tackle antisemitism in schools and universities.

An Edinburgh University student taking part in a hunger strike in protest over Gaza yesterday said it was a “last resort” after other methods had failed. Edinburgh principal and vice-chancellor, Professor Sir Peter Mathieson, urged students on hunger strike not to risk their health. The Union of Jewish Students has criticised encampment protests for creating a “hostile and toxic atmosphere” for Jewish students.