Photographer: Peter Kindersley/Bloomberg

Fury at Top Tory’s College Brexit Probe Leads to Rebuke From May

  • Tory whip asked universities for details of teaching on EU
  • Acadamic accuses lawmaker of emulating ‘thought police’

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May committed herself to academic freedom after one of her party managers in Parliament was accused of mimicking totalitarian “thought police” in an attempt to establish how students are being taught about Britain’s split from the European Union.

There were widespread protests from academics and opposition lawmakers on Tuesday after Chris Heaton-Harris, a government whip, wrote to universities on paper with a House of Commons letterhead asking who was teaching about Brexit, what the syllabus was and for links to any online lectures. Heaton-Harris is the member of Parliament for Daventry in the English Midlands.

“Chris Heaton-Harris wrote to universities in his capacity as an MP, not as a representative of the government,” May’s spokesman, James Slack, told reporters in London. “The prime minister is very keen on protecting the freedom and independence of universities and the role they play in creating open and stimulating debate. Free speech is one of the foundations on which our universities were built and of course it should be respected."

Worcester University Vice Chancellor David Green told the Guardian newspaper that he was “chilled” by the letter. “This letter just asking for information appears so innocent but is really so, so dangerous,” he said, warning it was a step toward political censorship.

Heaton-Harris, a former member of the European Parliament who describes himself on his website as a “fierce Euroskeptic,” insisted there was no sinister intent behind his letter.

“To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit,” he said on Twitter.

Matthew Goodwin, who teaches politics at the University of Kent and has written extensively about populist politics and the reasons for the Brexit vote, said he would not be co-operating with the lawmaker’s request.

“Compiling lists of professors and what they teach is not about ‘debate.’ It’s a clear attempt to bend academic freedom to political objectives,” Goodwin wrote on Twitter. “I teach Brexit issues but if you think I’m handing over module material to Thought Police you can take a walk. This is Britain not Soviet Union.”

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