“Acampes” en universidades británicas: diversidad de respuestas
Junio 16, 2024

Legal action over Gaza encampments on UK campuses

Queen Mary and Birmingham go down legal route, as Swansea students claim victory, and Oxford protesters fear disciplinary reforms
Patrick Jack,June 13, 2024

The fate of pro-Palestinian encampments on UK university campuses appear to be up in the air as term draws to a close – with some celebrating victories for the divestment movement and others facing court action.

Six weeks on from the movement first spreading to the UK, Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and the University of Birmingham have attempted to disperse students through legal means, while the University of Oxford has been criticised for trying to introduce “concerning” legislation that threatened freedom of speech.

Oxford was due to vote on changes to statute XI, the institution’s code of discipline for students, which would allow it to investigate serious misconduct without complaints having to be made to the police first, but the vote was withdrawn after an outcry.

The Oxford Action for Palestine (OA4P) group said the proposed amendments would have meant that anyone who caused the university material or financial loss, or caused reputational damage, would be liable to disciplinary action.

Rowan, a member of OA4P and a DPhil student, told Times Higher Education that the “vaguely worded amendments” could have been interpreted to diminish freedom of speech and the right to assembly of those calling for divestment from Israel.

Oxford denied the amendments were brought in because of the protests, but said they were a change to how the university investigates serious non-academic student misconduct, particularly sexual offences.

A spokesperson said it was vital the university community understood and supported the proposals when they came into force, so it had postponed a vote for now.

However, Rowan added: “It’s deeply concerning that these amendments were being brought in in a moment of increased protest and attempted dialogue with the university. If they’re not in response to protest, why are they so vaguely worded as to potentially be interpreted and used as a weapon to prevent protest?”

They said the amendments were in keeping with the university’s response to the encampments so far, coming just a few weeks after 16 protesters were arrested after occupying vice-chancellor Irene Tracey’s office.

“The university’s response to the encampment has been one primarily of evasion, one of looking at clear transactional calls for dialogue in good faith,” they said. “And the response has been to obfuscate, to delay, to go through back channels, to try to mislead the community and the wider public about what OA4P is.”

While university leaders across the UK might be hoping that the end of term will halt the momentum of the protests and bring an end to the encampments, Rowan said they would be “sorely mistaken”.

This is a national movement, a global movement, and I think the idea that we will simply operate on the timeline and schedule of the university and abandon all of our efforts…I don’t think that will be true.”

At QMUL, the response was more direct, with the institution issuing students a possession order after describing the encampment as a “health and safety risk” in an email to staff.

The case was adjourned for now, but Clive Gabay, a reader in international politics, said he was “deeply frustrated” that university leaders had chosen the legal route over entering into a dialogue with students.

“I am pleased that the judge in the case has deemed that there are for now insufficient grounds to demand that the encampment be disbanded, and I hope that the university will do the right thing, enter into a dialogue, as other university leaderships have done, and protect the encampment students from violent agitators who have already caused the students great distress,” he said.

A former member of staff told THE that the decision to take students to court was “horrendous PR for the university”.

A QMUL spokesperson said the university fully supported the right of everyone to peaceful protest within the law, but that the encampment gave the university no option but to take legal action.

“We cannot continue with the unacceptable level of health and safety risks brought by the actions of encampment members and people attracted to the associated demonstrations,” they said.

The University of Birmingham has also taken similar steps, announcing that it had requested a possession order to “end the disruption being caused to university land and activity being caused by the camps”.

In a statement, Adam Tickell, Birmingham’s vice-chancellor, said it was with a “heavy heart” he was taking that step, but that recent actions – including the intimidation of staff and the vandalising of campus properties – had created a “hostile environment” for some.

Most of the dozens of encampments across the UK remain frozen out by their universities, but some have recorded victories. The Swansea University Palestine Society announced that it was winding down its 28-day encampment with some “significant wins”, including a commitment to divest from Barclays bank within the next two months.

But the group criticised Swansea’s reluctance to call for an immediate ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war, as it did over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

“We stand proud of the progress we’ve made, fuelled by an unwavering commitment to our cause,” it said in a statement. “Our fight doesn’t end here – we will continue to hold the university accountable for every action and inaction.”

In response, Swansea said its ethical investment and banking policy was based on a number of factors, including sustainability and ethical considerations, and the value of return on investments.

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