A Conservative MP and government whip, Chris Heaton-Harris, has been sharply criticised for writing a letter to every Vice-Chancellor in the country asking for the names of professors who lecture in European affairs “with special reference to Brexit”. He also requested copies to the syllabuses and online lectures for any Brexit related courses.
This represents an embarrassment for the government, who quickly moved to disown the letter by stating that Mr Heaton-Harris was acting in a personal capacity without the knowledge of ministers.
The move by Heaton Harris, who campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union, has been described as “Leninism” and “McCarthyism”, a reference to the infamous witch-trials of suspected communists in 1950s America.
— Alan MacLeod (@alan_macleod) October 24, 2017
Professor David Green, Vice-Chancellor of Worcester University, felt a “chill down my spine” when he read the “sinister” request: “This letter just asking for information appears so innocent but is really so, so dangerous,” he says.
However supporters of Heaton-Harris such as Philip Davies, the MP for Shipley, have defended the letter.
He said: “The problem is that everybody knows that universities are not opening the minds of their students- they are just indoctrinating them with the left wing political propaganda of the professors and lecturers.
“They should be a bit more balanced in their teaching. I suspect what has got them irritated is that they have been rumbled. This false outrage doesn’t wash with me.”
In a recent radio interview, Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister, also defended Heaton-Harris. On the Radio 4 Today programme he described the letter as “more of an academic enquiry rather than an attempt to constrain the freedom that academics rightly have.”
However, after being repeatedly asked if he thought the letter should have been sent he admitted that “I think a letter that could have been misinterpreted should probably not have been sent in this way.”
The ongoing row shines a light on the continuing divisions in British society between leave and remain voters, the old and the young, and ongoing tensions between universities and members of the government who feel that pro-European professors are stifling debate on campus.
To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit.
— Chris Heaton-Harris (@chhcalling) October 24, 2017
(Image: Geoff Pugh/Rex/Shuttershock)