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The national political sphere collided with universities once again as Conservative whip and pro-Brexit MP Chris Heaton-Harris was revealed to have written to Vice Chancellors across the country for information on what lecturers are teaching about Brexit. He asked for “the names of professors at your establishment who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit”, but failed to explain why he wanted the information.
A spokesperson for the University confirmed that the Vice Chancellor, Mark E. Smith, received a letter from Heaton-Harris, and his request was considered under the University’s Freedom of Information procedures. They have since said that the information has not been provided to him; most universities seem to have made the same decision.
The letter has sparked another debate about free speech in universities, with critics suggesting it has sinister undertones and has been described by the general secretary of the Universities and Colleges Union, Sally Hunt, as having “an acrid whiff of McCarthyism”. Both Labour and Liberal Democrat education shadow ministers, Angela Rayner and Layla Moran respectively, have condemned the letter.
Hannah Laycock, the Students’ Union Vice President for Education said: “The Government has no place intruding on what is being taught and discussed in our universities. Freedom of speech and discussion on the topic of Brexit, as divisive as it is, is vital. If we are not allowing an open and critical discussion of the decisions our country is making, then how are we to know that Britian is making the correct choice? We cannot blame those calling ‘Leninsim’ for inferring that a Tory MP, in a Pro Brexit Party, would have ulterior motives for locating academics who are facilitating critical discussion of May’s Brexit”.
Universities minister, Jo Johnson, said it was only an “academic inquiry” and that Heaton-Harris was “pursuing inquiries of his own which may in time, I think, lead to a book on these questions”. However, along with a spokesperson from the Prime Minister’s office, he made sure to distance the government from the letter by claiming Heaton-Harris had written it as an individual rather than as a representative of the government, and acknowledged that it “should not have been sent in this way”.
A YouGov survey found that 80% of academics voted to remain, and before the referendum last year, over a hundred vice-chancellors around the country, including Mark E. Smith, signed an open letter about their concerns over how leaving the European Union would have a negative impact on students and universities. But even pro-Brexit academics have voiced their disapproval at the letter; Dr Lee Jones from Queen Mary University of London called it “troubling” and said “Universities are autonomous and politicians have no right to intimidate academics by scrutinising their courses”.