In a statement issued by Universities UK on 3 June, the umbrella body for vice-chancellors said its board “firmly opposes academic boycotts on the basis that they are inimical to academic freedom, including the freedom of academics to collaborate with other academics”.
The group said it wanted to “confirm its previously stated position that it is firmly opposed to any academic boycott of Israeli universities” as there is a “reported perception in Israel that UK universities support an academic boycott”.
The statement by the 24-strong UUK board, which is chaired by the University of Surrey’s vice-chancellor Sir Christopher Snowden, follows the National Union of Students’ decision to “reaffirm NUS policy on boycotting companies which have been identified as being complicit in human rights abuses in Israel/Palestine”.
The Solidarity with Palestine motion was passed by the NUS’s national executive committee on 2 June by 19 votes to 14, which committed the union “to affiliate to the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement”.
It has been condemned by the Union of Jewish Students, which said the decision “undermines interfaith relations and suffocates progressive voices for peace on both sides”.
Others condemned the move as "anti-Semitic", with NUS deputy vice-president (further education) Joe Vinson tweeting on 2 June that “antisemitism is like a virus, it mutates and infects everything it touches. It's mutated into BDS and NUS is infected”.
The NUS decision follows a vote at the University and College Union’s congress in Glasgow, which took place on 23-24 May, which resolved to note the “adoption by congress [in 2009 and 2010]...of a general pro-boycott policy directed at Israeli products and institutions, including academic institutions”.
Delegates backed a motion to send an email to all UCU members “reminding them of any policy on Israel”, despite a warning by general secretary Sally Hunt that any motion would be declared null and void in light of legal advice taken by the union.
Despite support for a boycott of Israel among many branches, the UCU has said it would be unlawful to take such a step as it would pose “a serious risk of infringing discrimination legislation” and is “considered to be outside the aims and objects of the UCU”.