York VC defends “academic autonomy” on Brexit

Image: Chris McAndrew

Chris Heaton-Harris, Conservative MP for Daventry, Assistant Government Whip, former MEP and qualified football referee, made national headlines this week after sending a letter to all university vice-chancellors in England. In the letter dated 3 October, he asked whether universities “would be so kind as to supply [him] with the names of professors… involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit”. He went on to also request details on any university syllabuses and links to online lectures that addressed the topic of Britain’s leaving the EU.

Conservative MP and Minister of State for Universities and Science Jo Johnson claimed that Heaton-Harris was doing research for a book, saying that he
was looking into his “very longstanding interest in European affairs and the history of European thought” and that “he was pursuing inquiries of his own”, going on to posit that “it was more of an academic inquiry, rather than an attempt to constrain the freedom that academics rightly have.” The Leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, expressed surprise at the reaction to the letter as she thought it contained “nothing sinister”.

Despite this, many viewed it as a request made in the capacity of his position as Vice-Chamberlain of the Royal Household and voted official causing the move to have been widely criticised, with some calling it “McCarthyish” or “offensive
and idiotic Leninism”. Number 10 refused to back Chris Heaton-Harris, and disassociated itself from Heaton-Harris’ letter, their press release being interpreted as a reprimand by some commentators. A statement from the Prime Minister’s spokesman said that “Free speech is one of the foundations on which our universities are built and of course it should be protected”. He continued by saying that “what the Prime Minister has always been very clear on is her respect for the freedom and independence of universities and the role they play in creating open and stimulating debate”.

Liberal Democrat MP, Tom Brake, alleged an “abuse of parliamentary facilities” because he sent the notes on officially-headed Commons stationary despite its supposed status as a personal project, and as a result Heaton-Harris has now been referred to the Commons Standard Commissioner, Kathryn Hudson.

A third year PPE student, who wishes to remain unnamed, stated that: “Were he to have only asked what was being taught, this wouldn’t be concerning. However, to ask for the names is a threatening gesture towards those lecturers, regardless of any other intent.” The implications have been seen as an attack on the freedom of universities to set and teach their own courses.

In the wake of the controversy , the Vice-Chancellor of the University
of York Professor Koen Lamberts penned an open letter to students. It stated: “As some of you may be aware from recent media reports, a member of Parliament, Chris Heaton-Harris, has written to every vice-chancellor in England, asking for the names of academic colleagues who are engaged in teaching ‘European affairs’, with particular reference to Brexit. He also asked to see syllabus materials and online content. The University of York received his letter last week.

“Although the MP does not explain the motivation for his request, I am deeply concerned that it may be part of an attempt to question, challenge or undermine academic freedom in universities. I want to assure you all that we will not provide the information requested by Mr Heaton-Harris. Instead, I will write to him to explain the importance o academic autonomy and independent critical enquiry in a democratic society, and our duty, enshrined in law, to resist in the strongest way possible any attempts to undermine academic freedom.”

Students applauded this move on social media. The aforementioned third year PPE student, in response to questioning, that he supported the reply for being measured rather than inflammatory. “Instead of accusing him of attempting to limit freedom, Koen Lamberts said he had no grounds to believe that. It showed that he was protecting the lecturers rather than trying to challenge the MP.”

Heaton-Harris has commented little on the controversy, merely tweeting “To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit.” Furthermore, he has not added any mention of the contention to the news page of his professional website. Regardless of intention, even Jo Johnson admitted that ultimately “A letter that could have been misinterpreted should probably not have been sent in this way.”

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