In a move many consider uncomfortably similar to Cold War philosophy seen in America during the height of McCarthyism, Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris has come under fire for penning letters to Vice-Chancellors of UK universities requesting the names of politics and European studies professors as well as their course and lecture content regarding Brexit.
The letters were met with widespread criticism both from university officials and government parties. While the Prime Minister’s official spokesman has maintained that Theresa May respects the freedom of universities, many remain concerned with what actions like those of Mr Heaton-Harris means for academic freedom in the post-Brexit UK.
A spokesperson for Newcastle University provided a statement saying: “A letter from Mr Heaton-Harris MP was sent to our Vice-Chancellor and we will not be responding to it.”
“I would ask that Chris Heaton-Harris MP explains his motive for asking universities to share names of their European studies Professors, their course content and lecture notes. This request suggests an alarming attempt to censor or challenge academic freedom.
“It is essential that universities remain places where free speech flourishes. This means protecting independence in academic study, encouraging rigorous debate and providing opportunities to hear and challenge a diverse range of views.”
Murray Dick, a lecturer at Newcastle University in Multimedia Journalism, stressed the importance of context in a letter such as the one sent by Mr Heaton-Harris, citing the Daily Mail regularly accusing people and organisations of being ‘enemies of the people’ or ‘enemies of Brexit’.
“Against this backdrop, it would seem that this letter is a rather more subtle attempt to intimidate and silence another sector of society that refuses to blindly and unquestioningly soak up and churn out Brexit propaganda.”
Owing to the fact that UK universities have been unanimously against Brexit since before the vote, Dick says, “it’s little wonder that those VCs who bothered to dignify this letter with a response have given it short shrift. In this respect, there’s no real comparison here with what happened in US higher education during McCarthyism.”
As for Newcastle University’s response, a spokesperson provided a statement saying: “A letter from Mr Heaton-Harris MP was sent to our Vice-Chancellor and we will not be responding to it.”