At the beginning of the month Chris Heaton-Harris, the Conservative MP for Daventry and a firm Brexiteer, wrote to every vice-Chancellor in the country asking for “the names of professors […] who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit.”
In his letter, Mr. Heaton-Harris, a government whip who was previously the Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the East Midlands, also asked for “a copy of the syllabus and links to online lectures which relate to this area”.
His behaviour has since been described as ‘McCarthyite’ by academics across the country, and has now been officially rebuked by Downing Street. Professor David Richardson, the vice-Chancellor of UEA, has called the letter “at best, clumsy and ill considered but, at worst, [sic] suggestive of an attempt to censor or challenge academic freedom.”
In a press release, Prof Richardson continued: “Mr Heaton-Harris’s letter has justifiably been condemned and I would endorse those criticisms.
“It’s vital that universities’ academic freedoms are protected and that we continue to remain free from, and unfettered by, government interference or censorship.”
Since facing criticism from academics and the media, universities minister Jo Johnson has explained that Mr. Heaton-Harris was not attempting to constrain academic freedoms, but “was pursuing inquiries [sic] that may in time lead to a book”.
Mr Heaton-Harris also tweeted that, “To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit.” Nonetheless, his actions and latent justifications are still facing criticism from academics.
Concrete reached out to Alan Finlayson, a Professor of Political and Social Theory at UEA. He said: “If [Heaton-Harris] is indeed writing a book and thought that this was an appropriate research method then I would have to confirm that he is just a stupid man lacking the most basic grasp of how to do research but possessing the arrogance to think he knows what he is doing.”
When asked if universities should see Heaton-Harris’ letter as a threat from the government to their independence, Prof Finlayson said “Something like this has to be put into context. It doesn’t come out of nowhere.”
He added: “It comes at times when leading figures in the government [sic] seek to deal with criticism not by countering it but by trying to cast doubt on its motives, to delegitimise it (not only in relation to Brexit but in relation to a range of policy ideas).”
“Critics of government policy”, Prof Finlayson claims, “have had their political and patriotic loyalties questioned (‘citizens of nowhere’, ‘enemies of the state’) their scholarly integrity traduced (with the suggestion that academics only oppose Brexit because of the funding a few of them get from the EU) and routinely dismissed through shadowy insinuations.
“With that sort of ideologically motivated anti-intellectual and anti-learning culture gaining in prominence it’s not unreasonable to see a Chief Whip of the governing party writing the way he did as the ratcheting up of a nasty and irrational ‘culture war’.”
Concrete also asked Prof Finlayson how academics and vice-Chancellors should respond to Heaton-Harris’ letter. He said: “I think that Universities should reply saying that he is welcome to look online at the range of courses and modules we offer and to attend an Open Day if he wishes to find out more.”
“More broadly I think that academics should in fact increase and intensity their presence in the public sphere. Political actors (politicians and their supporters) have always sought to make the best case for their politics and that’s fine. But that’s not quite the same as very knowingly spreading information that you know to be completely untrue.”
Dr Jeremy Noel-Tod, a senior lecturer in Literature, echoed Prof Finlayson’s thoughts. He told Concrete: “Perhaps Heaton-Harris’ letter was just an innocent request – and as naive about universities as its choice of words suggests (referring to all academics as ‘professors’ is like referring to all MPs as ‘ministers’).”
“But a cynic might see this as an attempt to contribute to the negative coverage of universities in the media at the moment, while the government tries to work out its [Higher Education] policies in light of Brexit and the last general election.”
Dr Noel-Tod added: “The test of the old it-was-for-a-book defence is, in the end, a book. But if Chris Heaton-Harris is serious about researching ‘European affairs’, I would suggest he sits down with an academic librarian who can show him the full range of resources available. He might also consider doing a PhD.”
Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has also criticised Jo Johnson’s defence of Heaton-Harris. He said: “[It is a] sign of the weakness of this government that Jo Johnson has been sent out to defend the indefensible.
“The universities minister should have wasted no time calling out this divisive and fundamentally illiberal attempt to put pressure on academics over Brexit. Instead he came up with excuses that raise more questions than answers.”
Cable added: “University vice-chancellors need to be reassured that this letter was utterly unacceptable and that Chris Heaton-Harris will lose the government whip.”
Dr Francis King, a lecturer in European History from UEA’s School of History (HIS), told Concrete he doesn’t see “the main threats to universities as coming from this behavior” but from cuts to academics resources.
Dr King also stated: “If you’re academic, your conclusion is the end of your research. But politicians [sic] often start with the conclusion and then find facts or distort evidence to back it up. Most academics on Brexit are against it as they have been researching what it involves, even if they are opposed to the EU.”
“It is easy to find out what people are teaching, but typical for a tory MP to go straight to vice-Chancellors expecting advice,” Dr King added, “It’s staggering, the arrogance and ineptitude of that man, to use that approach.”
Chris Heaton-Harris was contacted for comment.