What ridiculous posturing from some representatives of British universities. Chris Heaton-Harris, Eurosceptic Conservative MP for Daventry and a government whip, has written to university vice-chancellors enquiring about the names of academics involved in teaching European affairs ‘with particular reference to Brexit’. He asked for a copy of the university’s syllabus and any online lectures on Brexit. His letter is courteous and, many might feel, entirely reasonable.
Not so. Or at least not so as far as Professor David Green, vice-chancellor of Worcester University, sees it. He apparently felt a chill down his spine when he read the ‘sinister request’ that ‘appears so innocent but is really so, so dangerous’. Calling upon imagery of Orwellian dystopia, he described it as the first step to the ‘thought police, the political censor and Newspeak, naturally justified as “the will of the British people”.’ Professor Kevin Featherstone, head of the European Institute at LSE, was also angry, though his language of choice drew upon the imagery of witch-hunts. He referred to its ‘McCarthy’ nature, that it ‘smacks’ of ‘are you or have you ever been in favour of Remain?’, that there was an implied threat that universities would somehow be challenged for their bias. He argued this was the sort of enquiry that posed a threat to the role of universities as free intellectual spaces where academics could explore and question ideas without political interference, and feared there were now risks of ‘plunging universities into dangerous new political waters’.
What hysterical nonsense. Since when is politely enquiring about what is taught on a course tantamount to stipulating what should be taught? It is quite right that Heaton-Harris has brought this to light, and colleagues should come out and back him. Universities’ hair-trigger indignation and outrage should indeed raise our suspicions. If undergraduates feel they cannot properly explore an alternative view that is likely to be the Remain line of the intellectually superior and naturally more confident lecturers teaching them without thinking they are meeting with a certain kind of moral disapproval, then that matters. Brexit is like nothing that has been known for a long time. It has proved divisive. It has proved charged. Freedom needs to be about not just the freedom of academics, but also of those they are teaching to express themselves in open debate without feeling intimidated or browbeaten. If students are overwhelmingly coming up against one particular view, that is a subtle way of trying to ensure that will become their view too. Let’s not pretend, vice-chancellors, that this isn’t obvious.
Questions are being raised already about whether the country’s venerable higher education institutions really are free intellectual spaces. It seems that a number of campuses provide safe spaces from the very free intellectual spaces for which the professors fear. One imagines that there are substantial numbers of undergraduates for whom the idea that one in their midst might have been a Brexiter not only morally repugnant, but really very upsetting. It is disingenuous of academics to claim that the university environment does not have a certain political atmosphere, a certain mood that can intimidate some who feel they are in an extremely slender minority. So much so that they don’t feel able to do anything but keep to themselves the nasty opinions that make them Conservative-voting Brexiters.
It’s no secret that 80 per cent (YouGov) of academics voted to remain. That’s understandable; universities are in essence internationalist in outlook and strategy. Lecturers such Lee Jones, reader in international politics at Queen Mary University of London, and Chris Bickerton, reader in modern European politics at Cambridge University, are rarities as Leave voters. Yet they too are defensive. Jones says he is ‘troubled’, that politicians have ‘no right to intimidate academics by scrutinising their courses’ and that his ‘diehard’ Remainer colleagues are not teaching ‘propaganda’. That’s OK, then. We can just take his word for it. Tellingly, he admits, though, that though he himself was never pressured to ‘shut up’ during the referendum campaign, he did know of colleagues elsewhere ‘who have been blanked in the corridors because they voted to leave.’ Bickerton is on record as making clear that his Brexit stance comes from the political Left (see one Jeremy Corbyn’s historical lack of enthusiasm for the EU federalist project). Unlike the Labour leader, Bickerton has the intellectual confidence to articulate his position with clarity, unencumbered by, well, politics. He reassures us that he is unconcerned about his views affecting his promotional prospects and has never felt any ‘institutional pressure’. Good. Anecdotal, but that’s fine. Other academics may have different experiences.
Undergraduates also may have their own stories. I heard of one recently where hundreds of students in a politics lecture were asked how they had voted in the EU referendum and only one admitted to voting for Brexit. There were probably more but they had felt unable, either for academic or social reasons, to out themselves. The young man telling me this related it with a certain pity and incredulity that someone doing a politics degree could be so intellectually misguided, but at least saluted his bravery in owning up to his act. A third-year student told me how an English Literature lecturer with whom he’d had a good rapport during his degree course simply froze mid-conversation on learning he was talking to a Brexiter and turned away in distaste. Childish. I myself was at an alumni event just after the referendum and when I mentioned to a retired Fellow that I knew several young people, undergraduates no less, who had voted to leave, he practically staggered back. ‘Really?’ he frowned. ‘No! Well, how completely extraordinary.’
Only more anecdotes. But they illustrate why it is entirely reasonable for there to be some information on whether mass indoctrination is happening in universities and whether students are getting balance. It is not good enough for academics to say it is all fair and balanced and there’s an end to it. Vice-chancellors need to remember just who is stumping up their half-a-million remuneration packages. And that is not about any curbs on their academic freedoms, something which Heaton-Harris’s courteous letter did not in any way imply. It’s about information and transparency. Brexit is either a big deal (Deal or No Deal) for the country or it is not. That is why, in spite of university paranoia or the Europhile Chris Patten’s foolish talk of ‘Leninism’, we do have a right to some idea of whether it is being addressed with any balance as regards young minds.