Old College protest: a statement from the Principal

Since 5 May 2024, a group of people have been occupying the Old College Quad in protest about the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine. This follows a number of similar protests taking place in campuses across the UK, the USA and the world over the last few weeks.

To the students currently encamped in Old College and to other members of our community who are engaged in other forms of protest on current issues, I am writing as Principal of our University to emphasise that we hear your message, we respect your right to peaceful and lawful protest and we fully recognise the strength of feeling that you have demonstrated with your actions.

Our primary concern has always been and will always be the safety, security and wellbeing of all members of our University community. There will be people with views very different from yours: they are also welcome to express them in peaceful and lawful ways. A university should be a place where the most sensitive, topical and complex matters can be openly debated in an atmosphere of respect and safety. This principle is enshrined in our position on freedom of expression which was articulated some years ago and still holds true today:

Our Commitment to Freedom of Expression | The University of Edinburgh

By the same principle, members of our community have the right to go about their lawful business, free from harassment: in this respect we are grateful that the encampment in Old College has so far been peaceful and has not obstructed access to Old College for the staff who work there or for others needing access. Please note that hundreds of your fellow students are scheduled to sit examinations in the coming days and weeks. Some of these examinations are taking place in Old College and our students are using study space and the library at Old College. This is an important time of year for our students and we hope and expect that you will respect their needs and wishes, so that they can navigate a time period which is already stressful for them without any additional tensions. Similarly, staff require access to their workplaces to do their jobs, so please treat them with respect and let them carry on as normal.  

We have very recently been notified of the intention of an unknown number of students to commence a hunger strike as an indication of their strength of feeling and determination around issues related to Palestine and Israel. Whilst we recognise their bodily autonomy, we appeal to them and others not to take risks with their own health, safety and wellbeing. Please make yourself known to us at any point at which we may be able to direct you to support. We are in daily contact with the protesters to ensure they are aware of the health and wellbeing support available to them.

There are some inaccuracies in some of the assertions made: for example we do not invest in controversial weapons; Blackrock is one of a number of investment managers that we use and our investment in their ESG fund complies with our responsible investment policy; Albemarle has not manufactured white phosphorus for at least a decade; there is no portrait of Lord Balfour in Old College (we have for several years been engaged in a project to modernise some of the artwork in Old College: this started in the reception area and has extended to the area under the Playfair staircase where the portrait of Lord Balfour was formerly located). On these and other contested issues, we maintain a regular dialogue with student and staff representatives and we will continue to work in this way. A university should also be a place where there is respect for the truth.

We all deeply regret the loss of innocent lives anywhere in the world. We fervently hope for a peaceful solution to the current conflict in Palestine and other conflicts around the world. We will support the right to peaceful and lawful protest, and we have no current plans to disrupt your encampment provided that it does not unduly interfere with the activities of the University and its community.

We are proud of our status as a University of Sanctuary over many decades, and a founder member of CARA, the Council for At-Risk Academics, which provides opportunities for displaced academics from all over the world at our and other like-minded universities. We will continue to offer support to those members of our community that are directly or indirectly affected by Palestine or other conflicts. Right across the University, we are thinking of ways to help rebuild and regenerate the region as conflict subsides, including how we can help to bring back the University sector which has been so devastated.

Professor Peter Mathieson

Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh

7 May 2024


9 May 2024: Response to Edinburgh University Justice for Palestine Society

15 May 2024: Update on the University's investments

17 May 2024: Response to student protesters and staff group


Related links

A University of Sanctuary | Israel and Palestine