Free speech and open debate are qualities we rightly hold in high esteem in this country. The university system embodies these qualities. They provide a place for students to explore their political views and beliefs and debate with fellow pupils. This environment is precious and to be protected fiercely.
So why do these initial points need to be made? The answer can be found in a letter sent this week by Conservative MP and whip Chris Heaton-Harris. Mr Heaton-Harris had written to every university asking for the names of the academics teaching about Brexit. Later it has been claimed Mr Heaton-Harris was acting in his capacity as an MP and not acting on behalf of the Government, with the letter designed for academic research.
This has not spared Mr Heaton-Harris a fierce rebuke from both the political and university sectors. Universities Minister Jo Johnson said the letter “probably shouldn’t have been sent.” Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake believed the letter was “a poorly disguised attempt to shut down debate on Brexit.” Professor David Green, vice-Chancellor at the University of Worcester believed the letter constituted a “British McCarthyism”, with Chris Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University going further saying the letter was an “extraordinary example of outrageous and foolish behaviour – offensive and idiotic Leninism.” There is a possibility now that Mr Heaton-Harris could face an official standards inquiry, after it was claimed that the letters were sent on taxpayer-funded Commons paper.
Brexit is the prevalent issue of our day. Both young and old, university educated and non-university educated have an opinion. It is a conversation that did not end after the referendum and probably will not end for some considerable time. All need the space and the freedom to reach their own conclusions. It is important that we trust our students to reach these positions on their own, even if they are not positions the Government is adopting.
It is unclear whether this was a clumsy attempt to put pressure on universities, or simply part of an ill-thought out academic process. Regardless, it crossed several lines and is not acceptable. The Government should not be in the position of being seen to influence university syllabuses. The condemnation should serve as a warning to any within the political system who would seek to direct our universities and students in a particular political direction.