Photo of the student encampment on the green heart. A prominent banner reads "The Gaza heart liberated zone"
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UCU and UNISON statement on the Gaza Encampment

Joint statement from the UCU and UNISON branch committees

We are writing in response to Adam Tickell’s message from the VC. He has announced that the university has decided to seek legal action against its own students based on their peaceful, disciplined and orderly protest. This protest asks us to not turn our gaze from the extreme level of suffering experienced in Gaza, to not ignore the more than 35,000 deaths, more than 84,000 injured, the population denied basic food, shelter, water and medical care, and the critical infrastructure, universities, schools and hospitals deliberately targeted and destroyed. This on-going carnage has been widely condemned by the international community. Our position is that students are standing up in a reasonable, thoughtful, humane and courageous action to ask the university community, the region and the world at large to notice and prevent what is an appalling human tragedy. The students are not ignoring the suffering of Israelis who have been killed or taken hostage. They are asking what can be done now to end the violence for all communities and then to imagine, and to help bring about, a peaceful future.

The protesting students are not, however, making abstract and insubstantial demands. They are asking what can we do, here, now. That is important. They are demanding that the university look carefully at how it invests its money, which partnerships it supports and how it might assist students and academics in the region. They are asking the university to reflect and choose. What can our community do, with actions within our grasp, to help move in the direction of a resolution of the conflict? This is a difficult question, but essential. That is the question in the air, over the green heart, where the student tents recall us to the tent cities of Gaza.

We regret that the Vice Chancellor has chosen to enter this context with threats and misleading information. He writes from a distance, from an email, that belies the few steps it would take him to cross from his office to the students whose education supports the institution he leads. It has taken courage for students to accept the risks of protest and set up an encampment, to live in tents for an extended period of time and continue with exams. It might also take courage for the VC to speak to students directly, with consideration and respect. That has not happened.

Adam tells us that students have refused offers to meet with university managers knowing very well that the students have tried repeatedly to meet with him and he has refused. He speaks of a ‘detriment’ to the university community, but there is little evidence of that. Events scheduled for the end of term have taken place. There is disruption, of course. That is the very point of a protest. Students and unions tried to deliver a letter to the VC’s office. We knocked on the door. We asked to come in to deliver a letter, repeatedly. We completely reject the accusation, however, that students have been “shouting at, harassing and intimidating staff at their place of work”. Many of us have visited students at the encampment. It is not a place of fear and intimidation; it is a community space of joy and creativity. Their instagram pages bear testimony to this through crochet and art classes, food drives for the homeless, tea, arts and crafts, music, poetry and outdoor prayers. The VC mentions fear and intimidation in a letter that is designed to intimidate but cannot be further from the lived experience on the ground.

The VC implies that the protesting students have been “vandalising buildings across campus.” Our understanding is that an episode where paint was sprayed on Aston Webb was not done by students from the camp and, in fact, the VC presents no evidence, hoping that readers will skip to the conclusion that he implies.

The VC claims to support free speech, while also complaining that speakers have not been vetted with permissions or appropriate checks. He is not able to say that there has been speech that crosses legal boundaries or that there are episodes that create conditions where security is at risk. These have not happened. Even before the encampment the university cancelled a law school discussion on Palestine because it used the watermelon symbol and for no other reason. What the VC wants is not free speech, but management-approved speech.

Our understanding is that students will shortly be meeting with the pro-VC for Education. If Adam is serious about seeking meaningful dialogue and resolution, he will empower that meeting with the tools to move forward with student demands, to take them seriously and pursue concrete actions. We know that students also want to move forward. It is not enough to hope in the abstract “for an immediate ceasefire, the release of the remaining hostages, the delivery of vital aid, and a peaceful resolution to the conflict” when you have the practical tools to do more. Finding a “way for pro-Palestinian protests to be held” is not compatible with a threat of legal action.

UCU and UNISON’s positions are clear. We support the right of students to protest peacefully. We join together with union branches across the country to stand against antisemitism and islamophobia directed against anyone in our community and against criminalisation of students who are engaged in peaceful protest. Rather than embark on costly and damaging legal action against its own students, the university senior management team should recognize the effort and thought that students have put into formulating clear actions that the university can take. It should take them seriously. It should recognize this as an opportunity for positive change that will improve the university’s relationship with its community and show its commitments to both students and the wider world.

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