Oxford college heads, senior fellows and alumni have criticised Tory MP Christopher Heaton-Harris after he wrote to universities asking for a list of tutors lecturing about Brexit.
Speaking exclusively to Cherwell, a number of leading university figures have variously condemned the letter from the Eurosceptic Tory whip as “creepy”, “stupid” and an “implied threat” to the universities and academics who received it, suggesting that Heaton-Harris “should lie down in a darkened room and think about his behaviour.”
The letter, which was sent to all UK university vice-chancellors, asked for a copy of each institution’s syllabuses and links to any online lectures relating to Brexit. Helena Kennedy QC, principal of Mansfield, told Cherwell: “I think Mr Heaton-Harris has a rather narrow understanding of what happens in a university.
“I have no doubt he holds the view that most academics are proEurope and he would be right but it does not infect the intellectual process.
“The nature of academic discourse and inquiry is to examine issues from all sides. If Oxford did not do that, how come it produces politicians across the spectrum?
“His kind of thinking is what produced a narrow curriculum in our state schools and the invention of Clause 28 to prevent any discussion of homosexuality in schools back in the late eighties and through the nineties.
“Whatever he says, his true purpose is about proscription and it is inimical to the true purpose of education.”
Downing Street responded to Heaton-Harris’ letter by telling reporters that the MP had not been acting in his capacity as government whip when writing to university leaders, but as a member of parliament.
Heaton-Harris, the MP for Daventry and a hardline Eurosceptic, clarified that the letter had been sent in a personal capacity, but failed to provide an explanation for his requests. “To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit,” he tweeted.
Lord Andrew Adonis, former Labour minister and Oxford academic, agreed, telling Cherwell: “academic freedom is the bedrock of a free society. Universities and academics should simply ignore this implied threat to their freedom.”
Robert Gildea, Oxford University Professor of Modern History, who is writing a book on Brexit and the legacies of empire, thought the letter was more “huffing and puffing rather than a Leninist or McCarthyist threat”.
He added, “the letter demonstrates the shallow and two-dimensional mindset that Brexiteers are increasingly showing, as their project becomes more and more embattled. “It shows an ignorance about how universities and research work – no-one ‘teaches Brexit’ and Brexit isn’t just about ‘European affairs’. Our task as historians or political scientists is to understand how Brexit came about, and what its significance is, and this requires deep and multi-layered thinking, which is what we are paid to do.”
Lord Macdonald, Warden of Wadham, agreed that the letter did not pose a real threat to academic freedom. Speaking to Cherwell, he said: “Sending this letter was a stupid and creepy thing to do. I expect Mr Heaton-Harris regrets it.
“Though I doubt it has any implications for universities, since no-one will take this infantile nonsense seriously.
“He should lie down in a darkened room and think about his behaviour.”
Another senior politics fellow, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed his disappointment with the letter, remarking: “It is notable that Mr Heaton-Harris suddenly developed an interest in one tiny part of our teaching rather than Physics, Chemistry or any other subject.
“If Mr Heaton-Harris is so interested, he could of course resign from parliament, enrol as a mature student, and contribute to seminars himself.”
Oxford vice-chancellor Louise Richardson declined Cherwell’s request for comment.