Universities fight McCarthyite witch hunt

Letter of intent? David Green, Vice Chancellor at the University of Worcester

A Conservative MP stands accused of compiling a ‘hit list’ of university professors who teach Brexit courses, reports Aban Contractor.

Theresa May’s Government was today forced to defend the independence of the nation’s universities after it was revealed that a Tory Whip had written to vice-chancellors asking them to name all professors who taught European affairs, particularly on the subject of Brexit.

Chris Heaton-Harris, Conservative MP for Daventry and a staunch Eurosceptic, was accused of a McCarthyite witch hunt, a reference to Cold War-era trials in the United States against academics suspected of being communists.

The general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), Sally Hunt, charged him with compiling “a hit list of professors”, saying the Universities Minister, “Jo Johnson, must disown it in the strongest terms”.

Chief-Exec.com understands that the sector’s peak body, Universities UK (UUK), has heard from a number of its members who received Mr Heaton-Harris’ letter.

As a courtesy, UUK contacted the MP’s office today before issuing a media statement to ask if there was any further information about his intent in making the request.

Professor David Green, Vice Chancellor at the University of Worcester, said: “When I read this extraordinary letter on parliamentary paper from a serving MP, I felt a chill down my spine. Was this the beginnings of a very British McCarthyism?

“… He has written to me personally, by name, asking me to give him the names of those who are giving classes about the European Union and give evidence about exactly what they are saying. If I don’t, is he planning to use Parliament to denounce me as an ‘enemy of the people’?”

More than 80 per cent of academics voted to remain in last year’s referendum, according to a YouGov survey commissioned by the UCU in January.

A Downing Street spokesman said the letter had been sent by Mr Heaton-Harris in his capacity as an MP, not as a Government representative.

“The Prime Minister has always had a very clear respect for the freedom and independence of universities and the role they play in creating open and stimulating debate,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said universities were autonomous institutions and the department would not be commenting further at this stage.

Universities Minister Jo Johnson later tweeted: “Academic freedom absolutely fundamental and protected in statute in our recent Higher Education & Research Act 2017”.

Mr Heaton-Harris did not respond to Chief-Exec.com’s questions, but his office directed all queries to Conservative Campaign headquarters. At the time of publishing they were yet to respond. We will update the story when they do.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, asked that Mr Heaton-Harris explain his motive for asking universities to share the names of their European studies professors, their course content and lecture notes.

“This request suggests an alarming attempt to censor or challenge academic freedom,” he said.

“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.”

UCU’s Sally Hunt said: “Our universities and colleges must lead the way in defending academic freedom, where received wisdom can be challenged and controversial ideas debated”.


Headline Photo: Professor David Green outside The Hive,
Europe’s first joint university and public library.
Credit: James Watkins