Middle Eastern links: In place of a boycott...

Last week, four British vice-chancellors visited Israel to strengthen ties with its universities and those in the Palestinian Territories. Could this win Britain new friends in the Middle East? Lucy Hodges reports

When the university and college lecturers' union, the UCU, voted at its conference in May this year to have a debate on an academic boycott of Israel, all hell broke loose. British academia was criticised by many commentators in the UK, and by professors around the world, for anti-Semitism and for inhibiting the free flow of ideas.

In August a full-page advertisement appeared in The New York Times signed by 286 American university presidents, including the bosses of MIT and Princeton. Headlined "Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours, Too", it contained an eloquent statement by Lee Bollinger, a noted free speech lawyer and president of Columbia University in New York. He said: "In seeking to quarantine Israeli universities and scholars, this vote threatens every university committed to fostering scholarly and cultural exchanges that lead to enlightenment, empathy and a much-needed international marketplace of ideas."

The row was deeply embarrassing to the British Government. So Bill Rammell, the higher education minister, and Drummond Bone, the former president of Universities UK, paid a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories to lower the temperature and to reassure Middle Eastern universities that the United Kingdom was committed to promoting dialogue rather than boycotts.

Rammell and Bone promised that a small group of university vice chancellors would visit again to look in detail at how to strengthen links between British universities and those in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. That trip took place last week when four university chiefs from England, Wales and Scotland flew out for further talks with their opposite numbers in the Middle East.

Their job had been made easier by the fact that the UCU had received legal advice saying that an academic boycott of Israel would be unlawful and could not be implemented. "I think we were able to reassure the Israelis," said Professor Rick Trainor, president of Universities UK and leader of the group. "They responded positively to what we said about the boycott. The situation of the universities in the two countries is very different but the common theme of both sides was that they were very pleased at the prospect of increased academic contact."

Trainor, who was accompanied on the three-day trip by Professor Antony Chapman, vice chancellor of the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, Professor Anton Muscatelli, principal of Heriot-Watt University, and Professor Paul O'Prey, vice chancellor of Roehampton University, made it clear to the Israelis that the delegation was not taking a stand on the dispute. "We said that we were taking a stand on academic freedom against the boycott," he explained.

"We were always against it and it's fortunate that the UCU have taken the view that they won't be proceeding with the debate on the boycott."

British universities can do little on their own to solve the Israeli-Palestine conflict, but by improving links with institutions in the Middle East they are hoping to foster cooperation and understanding. With eight universities and many other academic institutions and teacher training colleges, Israel has a highly developed higher education system. Albert Einstein was one of the founders of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) has two Nobel prize winners. More than half of 20- to 24-year-olds are enrolled in higher education.

It is in the interests of UK universities to increase contact with such a successful player, according to Trainor, who is principal of King's College London. "It is not for us to decide what will happen," he said.

"What we will be recommending is that more research be put into academic links both with Israel and the Palestinian Territories."

The universities in the Palestinian Terrorities provide a stark contrast to those in Israel. The British university chiefs were able to see how tough things had been, and still were, for them. They visited An-Najah University in Nablus and Birzeit University, near Ramallah, which was closed for 51 months, from 8 January 1988 until 29 April 1992, and had to operate underground with small study groups. They also talked to senior staff of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, which has only been able to continue operating this academic year through donations from overseas. And they were told how difficult it was for academic staff or students to get around, to leave the West Bank, for example, to go abroad.

They were also told about the difficulties involved in the daily business of getting to university. The army checkpoints mean that students, academics and other university employees sometimes have to make very long journeys – of as much as two hours in each direction every day.

All the Palestinian universities have severe financial problems and some months are unable to pay their staff. "But we were struck by the very considerable potential of the Palestinian institutions," said Trainor. "They're doing a great job of carrying on despite the security situation."

The one thing these universities wanted was to be less isolated from the international academic community, according to Trainor. The British delegation talked to the Palestinians about the possibility of short-term visits by UK academics and increasing the number of scholarships for Palestinian students to come to Britain.

Many of the senior Palestinian staff the VCs met had been trained and educated in Britain and the US and pointed out that the generation coming up behind them had not had these opportunities. They hoped that ways could be found to get junior academics as well as students to the UK so that they could study for PhDs and undertake postdoctoral work in the West.

The report that the vice chancellors are writing will go to the Department for Innovation Universities and Skills with a strong recommendation that contact with Palestinian and Israeli universities be actively and further encouraged. Links do exist but the VCs' visit has uncovered a need for the British government and universities to do more in the interests of both this country and the Middle East.

Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Pornography is more accessible - and harder to avoid - than ever
news... but they still admit watching it
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
musicKate Bush asks fans not to take photos at London gigs
News
i100
Extras
indybest
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Technical Support Analyst

£23000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cuu...

HR Advisor (Employee Relations) - Kentish Town, NW London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor (Employee Rela...

PHP Developer / PHP Web Developer

£25 - 40k (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A PHP Developer / PHP Web ...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment