A letter from a Government whip to universities asking for the names of professors teaching about Brexit should “probably” not have been sent, Universities Minister Jo Johnson has said.
Chris Heaton-Harris, the Tory MP for Daventry, faced furious accusations of “McCarthyism” and “idiotic Leninism” after his letter to vice chancellors came to light.
Mr Johnson said that while Mr Heaton-Harris had been pursuing an “academic inquiry” with a view to writing a book on attitudes towards Europe, he had left himself open to misinterpretation.
He insisted the Government was committed to protecting academic freedom in the university system.
“Chris has been engaged in the European question for many, many years. He probably didn’t appreciate the extent to which this would be misinterpreted,” Mr Johnson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“I am sure Chris is regretting this very much. The Government is absolutely committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech in our university system.
“I think a letter that could have been misinterpreted should probably not have been sent in this way.”
Daventry MP Chris Heaton-Harris (House of Commons/PA)
University vice chancellors expressed concern that the letter from Mr Heaton-Harris – a strong supporter of Brexit – was part of an attempt to challenge or censor teaching on the issue.
The Chancellor of Oxford University, Lord Patten of Barnes, described his intervention as “idiotic Leninism” and accused him of failing to understand that universities were not like “Chinese re-education camps”.
Mr Johnson said such criticisms were a “gross exaggeration”. He stressed that Mr Heaton-Harris had written the letter in his capacity as an individual Member of Parliament rather than as a member of the Government.
“To describe this as Leninism is a gross exaggeration. Chris is, of course, not pursuing any project of re-education to dispel false consciousness in our universities,” he said.
“The Government is committed to academic freedom. Academics must be free to put together their courses in the way that they see fit. The Government can’t interfere in the manner in which they are taught, in the manner in which they are supervised or the manner in which they are assessed.
“We have absolutely no intention of interfering with that, nor do we have any intention of interfering with the criteria of selection of academic staff, their appointment or reasons for dismissal. These are autonomous and private institutions, largely, and we are deeply respectful of that.”
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable accused Mr Johnson of making excuses for the Tory whip.
He said: “It is a sign of the weakness of this Government that Jo Johnson was sent out to defend the indefensible.
“The universities minister should have wasted no time calling out this divisive and fundamentally illiberal attempt to put pressure on academics over Brexit.
“Instead, he came up with excuses that raise more questions than answers.
“Trying to dismiss this letter as research simply won’t wash with the many academics who have been made to feel like victims of a witch hunt.
“University vice chancellors need to be reassured that this letter was unacceptable and that Chris Heaton-Harris will lose the Government whip.
“Anything short of a complete and unequivocal statement on this from the Prime Minister will simply not do.”