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Halfon ‘fifth column’ Hamas comment criticised by union

Image: Fiona McIntyre for Research Professional News

UCU alleges higher education minister’s words have contributed to a “hostile environment” on campuses

Higher education minister Robert Halfon has been accused of fostering a hostile environment for academic freedom on campus by claiming that some universities are home to “a fifth column of Hamas’s ‘useful idiots’”.

In a social media post on 31 October, Halfon (pictured) was critical of what he called an “appalling motion” passed by the University College London branch of the University and College Union. The motion, relating to the ongoing conflict in Israel and Gaza, included an endorsement of “intifada until victory” and was condemned by the university.

In response, Halfon, who is minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education, said: “A fifth column of Hamas’s ‘useful idiots’ [is] far too prevalent at some of our universities.” The term ‘fifth column’ relates to a group of people who work to support a perceived enemy of a country from within.

A spokesperson for the UCU said Halfon’s words represented a threat to academic freedom.

“When cases of antisemitism and Islamophobia are on the rise, government ministers should think long and hard before calling university staff ‘a fifth column’,” they said. “His language adds to a hostile environment for academic freedom on campus—from the very party that claims to be the guardian of free speech.”

The spokesperson added that the UK government “should be spending every waking moment attempting to support an immediate ceasefire and peaceful end to this desperate situation”.

‘Stamp out discrimination’

Meanwhile, education secretary Gillian Keegan has said that a “vocal minority” on university campuses are “glorifying terrorism”.

“Alongside despicable support for Hamas, we have seen troubling reports of more direct discrimination against Jewish students or workers in higher education,” Keegan wrote in a blog for Conservative Home.

She said she had written to the Office for Students, asking England’s higher education regulator to “investigate the appropriateness of the actions taken by universities when cases of antisemitism or support for proscribed terrorist groups such as Hamas occur”.

“I will be calling on them to make full use of their powers as the higher education regulator,” she added.

Keegan also said that Halfon would “continue to engage” with vice-chancellors in a bid to ensure that the actions they are taking are “robust, so that no student feels unsafe or faces any form of discrimination in a UK university”.

“We will take rapid action to stamp out discrimination of all kinds, whether that is antisemitism, anti-Muslim or any other forms of hate,” she added.