Michelle Donelan wants EDI expert advisory group disbanded in Israel-Hamas social media row
This morning, UK research faces an unprecedented crisis. The secretary of state for science has given the chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, Ottoline Leyser, until the end of today to disband the newly formed equality, diversity and inclusion panel which is to advise the council on an action plan for English universities.
Michelle Donelan’s intervention is without precedent in research and higher education policy in recent times. It follows a letter sent by the science secretary to Leyser on Saturday accusing some of the advisory panel members of sharing “extremist views” on social media in relation to the Israel-Hamas war.
In the letter, Donelan cites the posting history of two members of the panel, Kate Sang of Heriot Watt University and Kamna Patel of University College London. Both academics have now locked their X (formerly Twitter) accounts.
Donelan wrote to Leyser “in the most serious terms” to express “my disgust and outrage at Research England’s appointment of individuals to an advisory group on equality, diversity and inclusion” who “have been sharing extremist views on social media”.
On Friday, Research England had announced a raft of appointments to its panel that will develop an EDI plan for the next round of the assessment exercise. Executive chair of the funding council Jessica Corner said at the time, “The appointment of the EDI Expert Advisory Group presents an exciting opportunity for us to receive the expertise, insight and challenge required to help define a set of ambitious actions, which will enable us to meet those objectives.”
Within 24 hours, Donelan had written to Leyser demanding that the group be dissolved. The secretary’s letter says, “Write to me by the end of the next working day with an update on your plans, which I hope will include discontinuing this group.”
Yesterday, a brief statement by Leyser, posted on UKRI’s official X account, read, “We are deeply concerned to have discovered these comments. We are conducting an immediate investigation.” When asked by Playbook for more details of the review, UKRI was unable to comment further.
In the letter, Donelan said she is “outraged” by a tweet from Sang, “who stated that the UK’s crackdown on Hamas support in the UK was ‘disturbing’”. Donelan continued, “Hamas is a proscribed terrorist organisation. It is completely unacceptable for anyone to be expressing sympathy or support for them. I am staggered that this has occurred full stop.”
While the X account of Sang—who also runs a £3.4 million UKRI-funded project called the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Caucus—has been locked to non-followers, Playbook understands that the tweet in question which “outraged” the secretary of state was the reposting of a Guardian article with the headline, Suella Braverman urges police to crack down on Hamas support in UK. Sang, who is equalities officer on the University and College Union’s Scottish executive, commented on the tweet, “This is disturbing.”
The Guardian story, from 8 October, reported on comments made by the home secretary the day after Hamas had launched an attack on Israel killing an estimated 1,400 people and taking 229 hostages. After reports of apparent “celebrations” of the invasion appeared on social media, Braverman said, “There must be zero tolerance for antisemitism, or glorification of terrorism on the streets of Britain. I expect the police to use the full force of the law against displays of support for Hamas, other proscribed terrorist groups, or attempts to intimidate British Jews.”
On 23 October, Braverman held a pre-planned meeting with the chief of the Metropolitan Police Mark Rowley, in the wake of some demonstrators chanting “Jihad” at a pro-Palestine protest in London, organised by the group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Rowley reportedly told the home secretary that no offence had been committed at the rally.
Donelan’s letter also quotes a second academic, Patel, the chair of the EDI advisory panel, who is said to have “amplified” a post on X “that condemns violence on both sides but makes reference to Israel’s “genocide and apartheid”.
Playbook is unable to verify the tweet in question but did contact the two named academics for comment. Neither has yet responded.
The secretary of state’s letter says, “public bodies—especially scientific ones—cannot be seen to take political positions or promote extremist ideologies”, and says that Donelan was “shocked” to see “multiple tweets by other members of the group”. On Sunday, the right-facing think tank Policy Exchange shared a note, seen by Playbook, detailing other social media posts by some of those named on Friday as members of the EDI panel.
The director of research and head of education and science at Policy Exchange is Iain Mansfield, former adviser to Donelan during her time as universities minister at the Department for Education. Mansfield is not quoted in the policy note.
The note claims members of the EDI expert advisory panel have expressed, “support for radical anti-Israeli views”, or have “been active in promoting other controversial and politically contested views on race and gender”. The note cites Sang and Patel, alongside other members of the group.
Head of security and extremism at Policy Exchange, Paul Stott, says in the note, “This is further evidence of the continued politicisation of the public sector in a way that privileges radical and contested views. It is legitimate for academics to express such views, but they cannot be allowed to predominate, especially on government bodies. It also casts further doubt on Research England’s controversial plans to politicise science funding, increasing the focus given to ‘people and culture’ at the expense of scientific excellence.”
The academics are said by Policy Exchange to “have promoted radical and politically contested theories such as decolonising the curriculum or gender ideology”. The policy note also cites Research England’s proposal to include equality and diversity considerations in the ‘people and culture’ section of the next REF, “raising further concerns of the possible role of the new advisory board in shaping the future of UK science funding”.
Donelan’s letter also says, “I have always been clear, academic freedom and free speech within the law are sacrosanct. But public bodies, or those representing them, cannot be seen to take political positions, let alone promote extremist ideologies…the political impartiality of our scientific funding system is vital. For this group, there has clearly been a serious failure to be mindful of the need for both real and perceived impartiality.”
As universities minister, Donelan was the architect of the Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) Bill.
Her letter notes that the research councils are “entitled” to appoint members of “sub-committees without seeking permission from government” or having prior approval for “the focus of those committees”. However, Donelan says that “some individuals…appear to have contravened the Nolan Principles of Public Life, which the members signed up to”, and calls on Leyser to take “swift action”.
Donelan told Leyser: “My strong preference would be that you immediately close this group and undertake an urgent investigation into how this happened.” The secretary asks the chief executive to report to her by the end of today on her planned course of action and to explain “why no due diligence checks on members were made after 7 October (given they were appointed in July) ahead of the announcement on 26 October, and the steps you are taking to address the real and perceived failures of impartiality that this situation has precipitated”.
The conclusion of Donelan’s letter takes a wider swipe at UKRI’s approach to equality, diversity and inclusion. While the research councils have “important legal duties” under equality legislation, Donelan said, “I am concerned, however, that in recent years UKRI has been going beyond the requirements of equality law in ways which add burden and bureaucracy to funding requirements, with little evidence this materially advances equality of opportunity or eliminates discrimination.”
Donelan adds: “I will write to you in more detail on this in the coming weeks.”
The situation represents a major crisis for the funding bodies. The tone and scope of the letter are unprecedented, with individual academics named as promulgating “extremism”.
The secretary of state made waves at the Conservative Party conference earlier this month when she attacked the “creep of wokeism” in science, initiating a review into the use of sex and gender questions in scientific research and statistics, to be led by Alice Sullivan of University College London. The report is due to be delivered to the minister and the Cabinet Office within six months.
As universities minister in April of last year, Donelan gave a speech at Policy Exchange setting out the case for the free speech bill, saying: “Authoritarian countries limit their students to a narrow view of the world and teach their students what to think rather than how to think. And they pay a hefty price for it in the long run. I worry that if we allow ourselves to drift towards a more narrow definition of free speech, we risk going down that same dark path as those other countries and compromising what makes our universities world class.”
These are the two prisms through which Saturday’s letter between Donelan and Leyser will inevitably be viewed. In other words, the minister has history here and has made several rods for her own back, which some observers of this scene will not be able to move beyond—in this case, we will experience rampant conflation.
Add to that the combustibility of opinion over Israel and Gaza, the noise of social media, and the totemic importance of the REF, which is run by Research England on behalf of all four nations of the UK, then this has all the making of the perfect storm for relations between the government and researchers. We would not want to be either Leyser or Corner coming into work this morning.
It will take cool heads to plot a course to resolve this situation. UKRI, however, has until the end of the working day to come up with a plan.
The first thing to say is that while it may have felt therapeutic for the secretary of state to post her letter on Saturday, it is an extremely serious matter to publicly name individual academics as holding “extremist” opinions. A duty of care is owed to those who sit on panels advising the government or public bodies such as UKRI, and if those individuals find themselves in the middle of a media furore, special attention must be given to their welfare.
The Sunday Express picked up the story and ran with the headline, Outraged minister unleashes fury at jobs for Hamas terrorist sympathisers: ‘I’m staggered’. Lessons ought to have been learned after the case of David Kelly that actually gave rise to the Nolan Principles.
However, some of the tweets identified by Policy Exchange are on the border of mainstream opinion over Palestine-Israel. As Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who was previously the party’s education spokesperson and who has family in Gaza, tweeted on X, “You can be pro-Israel and still care about people dying in Palestine. You can be pro-Palestine and care about the terror in Israel and releasing hostages. Both can be true.”
However, Playbook is told that Donelan’s intervention is not simply an assault on woke science. Rather, the minister is said to be “extremely angry” about how Research England has handled a round of public appointments to a sensitive panel at a time when university campuses are fraught with tensions over an international crisis.
Playbook understands that the minister considers the tweets at best tone deaf over antisemitism and at worst symptomatic of fringe opinions. Last night, department voices were explaining that this row is not about woke academics but about academics behaving in such a way as to call their impartiality into question after being appointed to a public role.
Playbook understands that Leyser will be expected to look into the circumstances under which appointments were made to the panel. A UKRI announcement on Friday accompanying the naming of the EDI group members said that “decision making was undertaken by a selection panel which was chaired by Dr Steven Hill, director for research at Research England”. The panel comprised Research England council members, [social enterprise entrepreneur] Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon and professor Graeme Reid [the co-author with Adrian Smith of a report to government on options for post-Brexit international research funding].
Playbook also understands that prior to Saturday’s public letter, the science department had already made known to Research England its unease over the ‘people and culture’ proposals for the REF. We understand that Corner was being given time to survey the situation after Universities UK and the Russell Group raised concerns about the possible shift from outputs to less tangible metrics in the weightings for REF assessment (news that was broken by Playbook).
The timescale for finding a way through this problem was, we understand, the government’s planned official response to the Tickell review of research red tape, pencilled in for mid-November. This schedule will now have been radically accelerated by Donelan’s letter over the weekend.
Under such circumstances, it is often the case that deputy heads will roll. There are no good options for Research England in this situation.
Should the research council decide to disband the panel and take action over the appointment process, it is sure to face a backlash from academics, perhaps even a boycott of future REF panels. Should the council push back against the letter, then it will find itself at war with the government at a time of uncertainty over future budgets.
Some might say that serving of the REF’s EDI panel is at the shallow end of public appointments, and the scrutiny afforded to social media posts of panel members is disproportionate. However, this is what happens when science and research is given its own Whitehall department and elevated in political importance.
The university and research community has lobbied for monthly meetings of the National Science and Technology Council. However, when the NSTC meets, chaired by the prime minister and including the likes of Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman, what do people think they are discussing? It is not how we can give more money to university research budgets.
This story is likely to run and run.
There are other things to concern us this morning. Universities UK has published a report on how higher education institutions can respond to the NHS workforce plan published in the summer, through training and innovation.
Depending on events at Research England, we may be able to circle back on this important topic later in the week. Elsewhere, the Financial Times’ chief data correspondent John Burn-Murdoch has published a riveting analysis of relative graduate salaries between the US and the UK, worthy of a Playbook in its own right.
There is a lot to catch up on. Just as well it is reading week in many universities.
On Research Professional News
The UK government has told companies to carry out their own research into the risks posed by artificial intelligence, writes Mićo Tatalović.
Leaders of some of Europe’s largest companies have sounded the alarm over the continent’s economic competitiveness, reports Craig Nicholson.
The Nuffield Foundation has launched a new network for its early career researchers, writes Rachel Magee. Rachel adds that the EU’s initiative to train one million people in ‘deep tech’ has reached the “milestone” of 75 organisations pledging to support it.
The Office for Students has revealed how universities will be judged from next year if their courses are deemed to be underperforming, Daniel Cressey reports.
The UK government urgently needs to come up with a strategy to prevent healthtech companies from moving abroad, according to reports from a social enterprise, writes Emily Twinch.
In Sunday Reading, Shee-Yee Khoo, Pietro Perotti, Thanos Verousis and Richard Watermeyer say that narcissistic vice-chancellors harm research.
In the news
The BBC covers a story on a Bath Spa University exhibition and book launched in memory of student Finlay Mills, who documented his time studying with a brain tumour during the pandemic.
The Guardian reports that UK visa appointments are being booked up by brokers and sold on for hundreds of pounds in an illicit trade targeting overseas workers and students. The paper also reports on the students in England being priced out of university towns.
The Times reports that Cambridge University has received more than £26 million from Huawei and its subsidiaries for research into sensitive areas. It also has a comment reflecting on a tendency in certain circles to think of educational inequality as a simple matter rather like race.
It also writes that officials have blocked James Dyson’s £6m donation to his local state primary school, and that tech minister Michelle Donelan warns AI will lead to job losses. It reports on an essay competition with a £10,000 prize that asks undergraduate students to settle the issue of whether “transwomen” are women, and reports on a graduate student’s designs on fusing man and machine.
Furthering the AI debate, the Times writes that Britain risks becoming a world leader in regulating AI rather than innovation.
The Telegraph says that Britain’s universities are in a crisis—and risk losing students as well as cash. It adds that Jewish students are covering kippahs with baseball caps and hiding Star of David necklaces amid soaring reports of antisemitism at UK universities.
The paper also has a story about an academic caught on camera tearing down a LTN protest poster who has been cleared by their university.
The iNews reports that the NHS Long-Term Workforce Plan won’t work without help to teach more trainee medics, according to Universities UK.
The Independent reports on the Jewish and Muslim chaplains navigating US campus tensions amid the Israel-Hamas war.
The Financial Times reports that UK tenant legislation could mean higher student rents.
The National reports on plans for Scotland’s first Gaelic university.
The week ahead
The Office for National Statistics is publishing data on public awareness, opinions and expectations on AI.
Universities UK is launching its Universities Power the NHS campaign and publishes a position paper outlining its recommendations for how universities can support NHS England’s Long-term Workforce Plan.
Science secretary Michelle Donelan will give a speech on the future of AI at an event held by centre-right think tank Onward.
The Quality Assurance Agency is releasing a podcast on hidden curricula for neurodivergent students.
In the morning, the Westminster Forum is holding a conference on the next steps for the life sciences industry in the UK.
The UK government’s global AI safety summit kicks off in Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.
Investment minister Dominic Johnson is tackling how to solve the problem of UK innovations falling into the funding “valley of death” at an event held by centre-right think tank Onward.
UK Research and Innovation and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will hold a webinar to launch a funding opportunity for a climate change adaption hub.
The UK’s AI safety summit continues for a second day in Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.
The Quality Assurance Agency is unveiling another publication for English higher education, with this one focusing on the Lifelong Learning Entitlement.
The Higher Education Policy Institute is publishing a report on the Teaching Excellence Framework by former vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, Nigel Thrift.
The Society for Research into Higher Education is running a session exploring effective ways to organise and support academic writing groups.
The Quality Assurance Agency is running a webinar on students wanting more inclusive and flexile assessments.
The QAA is holding another event on so-called “wicked problems” in the higher education sector.
It is the deadline for the University and College Union’s aggregated re-ballot on industrial action over pay and conditions.
The Playbook would not be possible without Donatella Montrone, Harriet Swain, Chris Parr, Orlen Crawford and Fiona McIntyre.
Thanks for reading. Have a great day.
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