The University of Manchester has received a letter from a government chief whip demanding a list of academics teaching about Brexit and the material they are using, The Mancunion has learnt.
Chris Heaton-Harriss, Eurosceptic Conservative MP for Daventry, wrote to vice-chancellors at the start of this month asking for Universities to disclose the names of any academics involved in the teaching of European affairs “with particular reference to Brexit.”
Asked by The Mancunion about whether the University has received such a letter, a spokesperson said: “The University has received the letter and replied, directing the writer to sources of publicly available information.”
Last week, the government warned that Universities that fail to uphold free speech on campuses amidst the culture of space-spaces could face being blacklisted by the new higher education regulator.
Emma Atkins, the Students’ Union Education Officer, said that it was “a bit rich for the government to lecture universities about freedom of speech when they pull a stunt like this.”
Although Universities minister Jo Johnson MP described the letter as “research for a book”, academics have accused the government whip of “McCarthyite” behaviour – in other words, making accusations or insinuations without full evidence.
David Green, vice-chancellor of Worcester University, told The Guardian: “This letter just asking for information appears so innocent but is really so, so dangerous. Here is the first step to the thought police, the political censor and newspeak, naturally justified as ‘the will of the British people’, a phrase to be found on Mr Heaton-Harris’s website.”
A YouGov survey indicated that 80 per cent of academics voted to Remain in the EU referendum and Students’ Union Education Officer, Emma Atkins, told The Mancunion that she believes the letter “shows how terrified the govt is about the public realising what a disaster Brexit is going to be.”
Despite this, academics have insisted that students have been encouraged to think critically for themselves and that personal views have not affected their teaching.
Director of the European Centre in the politics and international studies department at the University of Cambridge, told The Guardian: “I told the students what my personal views were and emphasised that they were personal views. I voted to remain, but as an academic, my job is to impart knowledge, encourage debate and develop skills of analytical argument, not to impose doctrine.”
Pro-Brexit academics have also suggested they are unhappy with the behaviour of MPs.
Lee Jones, reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University in London, said: “It is really troubling that an MP thinks it is within his remit to start poking his nose into university teaching.
“Universities are autonomous and politicians have no right to intimidate academics by scrutinising their courses. I have colleagues who are diehard Remainers. But I know what they teach and it is not propaganda.”
However, the Electoral Commission has suggested that Universities have nothing to fear from inquiries of this nature.
They said: “we produce guidance to help all non-party campaigners understand the rules on campaigning and we can advise universities in cases where they may be affected.
“These do not prevent campaigning or engagement in public debate, but provide the public with transparency about who is spending what in order to influence their vote.”
Students’ Union Education Officer Emma Atkins was clear that “university staff are right to voice their concerns about this”, telling The Mancunion that the “government interfering with academic autonomy is dangerous.”