UK universities fear censorship after MP asks how they teach Brexit

An anti Brexit protester adjusts his EU flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

By Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) - British universities rounded on an MP on Tuesday for asking them how they teach Brexit to students, a move many academics felt might be a prelude to censorship.

The furore around the letter, which the government distanced itself from, highlighted tensions in Britain's higher education sector where many have concerns over the country's decision to leave the European Union.

Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris, who has a role in organising how the ruling Conservatives vote in parliament, sent the letter to university chiefs, requesting "the names of professors at your establishment who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit."

"If I could be provided with a copy of the syllabus and links to the online lectures which relate to this area, I would be much obliged," he added.

David Green, vice chancellor at the University of Worcester, said the letter sent a chill down his spine.

"I realised that his letter just asking for information appears so innocent but is really so, so dangerous," he said in a statement.

Green said he thought he had been targeted after he spoke about wanting a better deal for English students.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK which represents university principals, said: "This request suggests an alarming attempt to censor or challenge academic freedom."

A spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said Heaton-Harris sent the letter in his capacity as a Member of Parliament, not on behalf of the government.

"What the Prime Minister has always been very clear on is her respect for the freedom and independence of universities and the role the play in creating open and stimulating debate," he said.

Heaton-Harris later tweeted: "To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit."

Around 90 percent of academics believe that Brexit will have an adverse impact on the higher education sector, according to a survey by trade union the University and College Union (UCU) in January.

The Russell Group of top British universities including Oxford and Cambridge said the content of courses was a matter for individual institutions and that every perspective on Brexit would be taught.

"Whether academics supported leave or remain at the (2016) referendum has no bearing on their ability to deliver stimulating, challenging courses which include a full range of views and opinions on our relationship with Europe," said Jessica Cole, head of policy at the Russell Group.

(Additional reporting by William James; editing by Stephen Addison)