The Conservative MP who wrote to universities asking for the names of lecturers teaching courses on Brexit and the content of their lessons was doing research for a book, a minister has claimed.
Chris Heaton-Harris, a government whip and member of the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Conservative MPs, wrote to vice-chancellors earlier this month asking for the names of any professors involved in teaching European affairs ‘with particular reference to Brexit’.
After it came to light yesterday he was accused of “McCarthyite” tactics by academics who said it was an assault on free speech.
But today the universities minister Jo Johnson sought to downplay his colleague’s letter, claiming Mr Heaton-Harris “was pursuing inquiries of his own which may, in time, lead to a book”.
It would be the whip’s first book since 2012’s Together Against Wind: A Step by Step Guide on Opposing a Wind Farm in Your Area, currently available for 49p on Amazon.
Mr Johnson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that his colleague was “regretting very much” his decision,
He said Mr Heaton-Harris was “pursuing inquiries of his own” which may lead to a book on “the evolution of attitudes” to Europe rather than acting in his government role.
Universities enjoyed “24-carat academic freedom” in the UK, Mr Johnson insisted.
In his letter Mr Heaton-Harris asks for “a copy of the syllabus” and any online lectures on Brexit.
Sally Hunt, chairwoman of lecturers’ union the University and College Union, said: “Our society will suffer if politicians seek to police what universities can and cannot teach.
“This attempt by Chris Heaton-Harris to compile a hit list of professors has the acrid whiff of McCarthyism about it and [universities minister] Jo Johnson must disown it in the strongest terms.
“Our universities and colleges must lead the way in defending academic freedom, where received wisdom can be challenged and controversial ideas debated.”
But Mr Johnson, who said he had spoken to Mr Heaton-Harris, said: “Chris was acting in an individual capacity as an MP rather than as a government minister… Chris has a very longstanding 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.
“It was more of an academic inquiry rather than an attempt to constrain the freedom that academics rightly have.”
Asked if the letter should have been sent, he said Mr Heaton-Harris “probably didn’t appreciate the degree to which this would be misinterpreted”.
He said: “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.
“A letter which could have been misinterpreted should probably not have been sent.”
Some fellow Conservative MPs have backed Mr Heaton-Harris.
Philip Davies, MP for Shipley, told the Daily Telegraph that universities were full of “left wing lecturers forcing their opinions on their students” and they should be “more balanced in their teaching”.