'This letter should probably not have been sent'. Universities minister, Jo Johnson

Chris Heaton-Harris, Conservative MP for Daventry and Conservative Party Whip sent a letter to University Vice-Chancellors and Principals asking they declare what they are teaching their students about Brexit and to provide a list of the names of lecturers teaching courses. Further, it requested a copy of the syllabus and any online lectures, raising concerns about the potential misuse of online materials. This caused more than a stir among BSA members. We were tweeting, critically and in opposition, responding to media requests for comments, and engaging in debates about the state of academic freedom in this case and more generally. The request for information on courses and named academics has garnered public and academic support for academic freedom. It has also demonstrated how the association and members can unite to protect and nurture this fundamental premise of academic work.

Debates have moved well beyond Brexit and caused the minister with responsibility for universities, Jo Johnson, to query the provenance of such a request in the first place. Johnson had, only weeks earlier, caused a stir in universities when he attacked what he claimed was a threat to freedom of speech on campuses and threatened to fine those who allegedly violated it. In this case, he was referring to ‘no platforming’ and expressed concern about universities and student unions.

Earlier this year, colleagues at LSE were at the forefront of debates about academic freedom when the Electoral Commission was in regular contact about the funding and content of events held on university premises in the run up to the general election. The role of universities and colleges is to provide free intellectual spaces where academics can explore and question ideas without political interference. The Electoral Commission says its role is to “provide the public with transparency about who is spending what in order to influence their vote” but there is a growing trend to query events located in universities and to a greater degree year on year. This is also evident in the case of the Prevent duty.   

Many organisations and political parties, including the Conservative government, have distanced themselves from Heaton-Harris’ letter. Yet, the Daily Mail has taken up the charge against what it sees as University bias in favour of Remain and asks people to email them with reports of university bias. It even printed an email address for whistle blowers. At the same time the Telegraph misreported debates in Cambridge University about decolonising the English literature curriculum.

The BSA, along with our parallel learned societies, across social science, Europe, and beyond, vigorously contests any interference with the right of our members to research and teach in the spirit of academic freedom. Many of us are now working with students and colleagues to defend academic freedom and vital, rigorous scholarship into social and political issues. We challenge any perceived attempts to narrow, demonise or co-opt our teaching, research, critical analysis and other activities.

Linda McKie
Director of Public Engagement
On behalf of the Board of the BSA