Last week a letter sent to universities by a junior government whip was greeted by alarm by many academics for threatening academic freedom. The letter from Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris was addressed to vice-chancellors and only exposed when the head of the University of Worcester made a copy public.
Universities were asked to produce lists of what teaching in European affairs relating to Brexit took place, the names of individual staff members teaching on EU matters and for links to lecture recordings. Heaton-Harris sent the request using House of Commons letterhead and only a few weeks before his colleague universities minister Jo Johnson MP later called for more free speech on campuses.
Heaton-Harris’s letter was variously described as ‘McCarthyite’ and ‘sinister’ and called ‘dog whistle politics at its worst’ by Professor Thom Brooks, the Dean of Durham Law School. Heaton-Harris supported Brexit. It was later rebuked by 10 Downing Street.
Today, Professor Brooks will submit a petition to the universities minister calling on him to write to all vice-chancellors contacted by Heaton-Harris and confirm in writing that none are required to release the information requested. The petition reads: ‘In so doing, he would reaffirm his government’s commitment to academic freedom, debate and the high quality of teaching standards at our country’s higher education institutions’. Over two thousand academics and supporters have signed the petition on Change.org.
Brooks says, ‘While neither the Prime Minister nor her minister appear to support Heaton-Harris’s request, both have not made clear to universities they can disregard the letter if they wish. We have the highest standards set for teaching quality and these should not be cast aside in pursuit of a political agenda’.