Tory whip accused of 'McCarthyist' request to universities over Brexit syllabus

Written by John Ashmore and Tom Freeman on 24 October 2017 in News

Request for the details of academics teaching Brexit accused of having "the acrid whiff of McCarthyism"

Academics have hit out at a senior Tory MP after he wrote to universities asking for details of courses that cover Brexit and a list of teaching staff.

Chris Heaton-Harris, who is a member of the Tory whips' office, asked institutions for "the name of professors involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit", along with a copy of any relevant syllabus and online material.

A copy of the letter from Heaton-Harris to the vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester, David Green. was shared on social media.

"I was wondering if you could be so kind as to supply me with the names of the professors at your establishment who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular  reference to Brexit," he said.

Professor Green told the Guardian he would be replying, but would not supply the information requested by Mr Heaton-Harris.

“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," he said.

The head of the European Institute at the London School of Economics, Kevin Featherstone, also hit out, telling the paper: "The letter reflects a past of a McCarthyite nature.

"It smacks of asking: are you or have you ever been in favour of remain? There is clearly an implied threat that universities will somehow be challenged for their bias.”

And pro-Brexit academic Lee Jones, of Queen Mary University of London, said it was "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," Jones added.

University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt said: "Our society will suffer if politicians seek to police what universities can and cannot teach. This attempt by Chris Heaton-Harris to compile a hit list of professors has the acrid whiff of McCarthyism about it and Jo Johnson must disown it in the strongest terms.

"Our universities and colleges must lead the way in defending academic freedom, where received wisdom can be challenged and controversial ideas debated."

Under Freedom of Information rules however, universities are required to treat any requests for information as an FOI request, should Heaton-Harris pursue the claim.

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