Academic freedom should be a cornerstone of policy

Universities must foster an environment of healthy debate on campus

Image: Wikimedia Commons

On 3 October, Chris-Heaton Harris, MP for Daventry and senior government whip, sent a series of letters out to the Vice Chancellors of many of the nation’s leading universities, including York. Heaton-Harris asked not only for details of syllabus content relating to the Brexit vote but also for the names of all professors at these institutions whose purview involved discussing the recent referendum. After having been exposed on 24 October, Mr Heaton-Harris was widely castigated as a sinister ‘McCarthyite’ seeking to undermine academic freedom. Conservative Universities Minister Jo Johnson asserted that “the government is absolutely committed to academic freedom” and Mr Heaton-Harris hastily clarified his belief in “free speech in our universities” on Twitter.

Now, I personally have no desire to defend Mr Heaton-Harris’ behaviour. It is very hard to find any explanation of his behaviour other than the passive-aggressive bullying of university staff. The subsequent condemnation was, to my mind, very cheering and it is a relief to find that by and large most people are willing to defend free discussion and debate. However, I still think that there is case for addressing the basic concern underlying Mr Heaton-Harris’ behaviour, namely that universities exhibit an unreasonable degree of pro-Remain bias.

I have no wish to suggest that there is any conscious effort by this University or indeed any other to indoctrinate the student body. A brief glance at our syllabus for a BA in International Relations is enough to suggest a healthy spirit of debate and analysis on all issues relating to the EU and other international relations, which is more than enough to put the most paranoid Brexiteer’s mind at ease. It is true that the University, along with many others, receives much EU funding , with a €53m loan recently going to the development of Heslington East. Nonetheless, to suggest that University staff would ardently refuse to countenance any and all opposing viewpoints lest it might deprive them of this filthy lucre is a fairly major leap of logic committed in a spirit of remarkable bad faith. I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of York staff and students are more than willing to foster a spirit of debate.

However, the problem is that I do not generally encounter as many Leavers as I do Remainers. Even when universities attempt to approach Brexit with the best will in the world, there can be little doubt that students and academics tend to support Remain. According to The Independent, of the 87 per cent of university students who participated in the Referendum, 84 per cent voted against leaving the EU.

It cannot be denied that many university students, especially at York, come from similar and often quite privileged backgrounds (as I do), which data from news outlets suggests tends to be linked to proRemain attitudes. Even if this does not cause a conscious atmosphere of indoctrination, the fact nonetheless remains that a vague political consensus is forever present among the students and indeed staff members on my course (although being an English Literature student our discussions are admittedly often of a fairly apolitical character compared to other courses).

However, I remain convinced that further government harassment is not the answer in this situation. Most students and staff members I have encountered seem open-minded and willing to debate; I have seen fairly lively debates take place outside of seminars between people of different political persuasions and indeed within seminars on subjects unrelated to Brexit. I am therefore hopeful that, as the Brexit process continues, and York hopefully diversifies its intake of students further, the variety of different views on campus will increase and so too will the frequency and intensity of passionate yet respectful debates on this and many other issues.