Universities up and down the land are clambering to recruit students in time for the start of the new academic year. International students – those from outside the EU – are the most lucrative market, not least because there are no legal restrictions on the fees that they can be charged; top universities, such as Oxford, can charge as much as £23,000 a year for some courses. But there are also sound academic reasons why we should recruit internationally. We want our campuses – which are places of education as well as training – to be centres of social, religious and ethnic diversity. We also want, of course, to recruit the best students. Yet the signs are that the sector is failing in its mission to make campuses as cosmopolitan as possible. And students from Israel, in particular, appear to be increasingly turning away from British universities.
Over the past six years, the number of Israeli-domiciled undergraduates and postgraduates enrolled on British university courses has fallen by almost a third. In the academic year 2015-16, there were 420 such students, Jewish News reported; but in 2007-8, there were 620. And according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the biggest fall in these numbers has taken place since 2010-11, when there were 595 such students. While among first-year students, the number of Israelis has fallen from 260 to just 200 over this eight-year period.
It is, unfortunately, not difficult to explain this decline. No less an authority than the UK’s current ambassador to Israel, David Quarrey, has admitted that some Israelis are ‘probably deterred’ from applying to study in the UK by well-documented reports of verbal and even physical harassment of Israelis on some of our campuses. Yesterday, the Times reported that senior members of the National Union of Students were facing accusations of anti-Semitism after a series of tasteless social media posts. Holocaust denial leaflets have appeared at some universities. And earlier this year, a swastika and a ‘Rights for Whites’ sign was discovered in a halls of residence at Exeter University. There were also reports from the same university suggesting that one student had worn a T-shirt saying ‘the Holocaust was a good time’ to a sports club social event. But the problem is deeper than these worrying events alone, because it’s not just Israelis who are threatened or who feel threatened on campus: it’s Jews as a whole.
At some of our campuses, Jewish students born in the UK – and occasionally Jewish staff – are subject to similar harassment, often thinly and disingenuously disguised as anti-Zionism. It was against the backdrop of this grim reality that universities minister Jo Johnson recently wrote to vice-chancellors. In his letter, ‘Tackling anti-Semitism on campus’, he warned that the government expected universities ‘to swiftly address hate crime, including any antisemitic incidents that are reported’. Such a letter is without precedent. It remains to be seen whether it will have the desired effect.