A Conservative MP “should probably not have sent” a letter to UK higher education institutions asking for a list of academics who were lecturing on Brexit, the universities minister said.
Jo Johnson claimed that Chris Heaton-Harris had been conducting research for a book on the evolution of attitudes to Europe, but said that his colleague was now “regretting very much” his decision to send the letter.
The letter, which also requested a copy of each university’s syllabus and online lectures on Brexit, triggered outcry from sector leaders about “McCarthyism” and was interpreted as an attack on academic freedom.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Johnson said that Mr Heaton-Harris had “a very long-standing interest in European affairs and the history of European thought”.
"He was pursuing inquiries of his own which may, in time, lead to a book on these questions,” Mr Johnson said. “It was more of an academic inquiry rather than an attempt to constrain the freedom that academics rightly have.”
Mr Johnson said that his colleague “probably didn't appreciate the degree to which this would be misinterpreted”.
“I am sure Chris is regretting this very much. The critical thing is that the government is absolutely committed to academic freedom and to freedom of speech in our universities,” Mr Johnson said. “A letter which could have been misinterpreted should probably not have been sent.”
Writing for Times Higher Education, Janet Beer, the vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool and the president of Universities UK, said that academics were “not using lecture halls or seminars to promote their personal opinions, on Brexit or other issues”. But she said that “discussing Brexit, and thinking about the impact of the decision to leave the European Union, are legitimate topics for consideration in many subject areas”.
Professor Beer added that it was “interesting” that the story emerged after the government warned that universities could face fines or even deregistration if they failed to uphold their duty to protect free speech.
“Students were urged to accept the legitimacy of healthy and vigorous debate,” Professor Beer said. “[These] developments indicate possible attempts to curtail these longstanding legal obligations and freedoms cherished by universities.”
Speaking on Today, Mr Johnson claimed that academics in the UK had “24-carat academic freedom”.
“Academic staff are free to test and challenge received wisdom and free to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions. That is the law and we support it,” he said.