The KCL branch of the University and College Union (UCU) criticised statements put out by the Vice-Chancellor and President of KCL over the Israel-Hamas war.
In a letter to College management on 16 October, the branch raised concerns over Education Minister Gillian Keegan’s recent letter to Vice-Chancellors, following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas War, which it said was part of a “broader attempt” by the government to “restrict academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of protest” in the context of the war.
Amid reports of representatives from several university societies across the UK appearing to condone the attacks by Hamas on Israel, Keegan’s letter asked universities to “act against any threats, be they implicit or explicit, to their [Jewish students] safety and welfare”. KCL UCU argued that Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s letter to the Police Chief Constables, which suggested that the waving of a Palestinian flag may be illegal in some circumstances, has given police “ample discretion in determining whether they may ‘glorify terrorism’”.
The union also said it was “very concerning” that Keegan’s letter made “no specific reference to protecting the welfare of Palestinian students”.
The branch called on King’s management to release a statement that “publicly confirms the College’s commitment to freedom of expression, academic freedom, and freedom of protest”. Since KCL UCU published the letter, Professor Shitij Kapur (KCL’s Vice-Chancellor) sent a statement to King’s staff and students which addresses some of the points raised by the union which were not covered in initial statements by KCL management.
The union said KCL’s initial responses to the conflict in Israel/Palestine omitted “mentioning its own duty to protect academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of protest”. Professor Kapur’s latest statement affirmed “we are committed to upholding and protecting freedom of expression within the law”.
According to the union, King’s has “actually discouraged staff and students from holding events to discuss the situation”. However, in his latest statement, Professor Kapur said it is “part of the role of a university to be a place where divergent opinions can be expressed and discussed”.
Moreover, the KCL UCU highlighted that the initial communication to students and staff “only mentions the situation in Israel and Gaza, without directly using the word Palestine” and characterised the omission as an example of a failure of “the College’s duty of care” for Palestinian students and staff.
Professor Kapur’s latest statement again did not directly use the word “Palestine”. However, he said the College was “engaged with the leaders of our Jewish, Israeli, Islamic, Palestinian, and wider student societies”.
In a letter shared with Roar, authored jointly by executives from KCL’s branches of UCU and UNISON and sent to Professor Kapur on 23 October, the unions criticised responses by KCL’s management. While the unions praised the College’s “explicit commitment to upholding and protecting freedom of expression”, they argue the latest statement shared by Professor Kapur still “lacks balance”.
The unions criticised the poor timing of the letter by Professor Kapur, which was sent just after the attack on Al Ahli hospital in Gaza, without any acknowledgement of the attack. They said this left “some of our members – including those who have lost relatives in it – in shock”.
The letter censured Professor Kapur for making “no mention” of violations of international law by Israel which the unions said was “an occupying power that is illegally annexing Palestinian territory and pursuing what may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
The unions also criticised Profesor Kapur for the final section of his latest statement regarding support for Hamas in reference to a Universities UK article, which they said was “not particularly clear or balanced”. In this context, the unions’ executives said they were “concerned that there will be some people in the College community who will conflate support for Palestinian self-determination and opposition to Israel’s attacks on Palestinians, with support for Hamas”, which it said could lead to unfair disciplinary action against union members.
KCL UNISON and KCL UCU called for King’s management “to engage with the campus unions regarding this situation and offer a balanced communication about the overall legal framework in order to make sure that members of our community do not feel threatened for their views or identities”.