Vice-Chancellor defends free speech amid controversial letter to universities from Chris Heaton-Harris MP

Vice-Chancellor, Professor Janet Beer, has defended academic freedom in higher education after a controversial letter was sent to universities by Chris Heaton-Harris MP asking about course content in relation to European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit. In an article for the Guardian, Professor Beer, who is also President of Universities UUK, wrote:

The letter sent to universities by Chris Heaton-Harris MP asking questions about how they teach “European affairs with particular reference to Brexit” is profoundly worrying.

In the absence of any real explanation on the intent behind it, it is hard not to fear that this letter represents an attempt to censor or challenge academic freedom. In these uncertain and polarised times, it is more critical than ever that universities remain spaces where issues can be debated and where views can be put forward without fear of censure or political interference.

Universities have a legal duty to secure free speech. Under the 1988 Education Reform Act, academic staff have the freedom to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs. These legal obligations are essential to the proper functioning of universities and were restated in the recent Higher Education and Research Act.

One of a university’s primary roles in society is to encourage and develop critical thinking in students and to promote vigorous debate on matters of public interest such as Brexit. A glance at the syllabus for any European studies modules offered by the UK’s universities will show they are structured to critically engage students. It is this very process of engagement that is so fundamental to providing graduates with the ability to test ideas, to argue their case and to make their own minds up.

There is overwhelming evidence to show that the university experience has a profoundly positive impact on graduates’ employability, lifelong earnings and their civic engagement. Interest in politics and political activity increases incrementally with educational level and graduates express the highest levels of interest. They are more likely to vote, to participate in voluntary activities and display more tolerant attitudes. This suggests that universities are getting it right and are educating graduates who benefit the whole of society as engaged and thoughtful citizens. Academic freedom is essential to achieving these positive outcomes and to the development of a civilised and tolerant democracy.

Last week, government warned universities that they would face censure by the new Office for Students if they failed to uphold their duty to secure free speech. Students were urged to accept the legitimacy of healthy vigorous debate. This letter represents a possible attempt to curtail the long-standing legal obligations and freedoms cherished by universities.

In spite of these mixed messages coming from the government benches, the higher education sector will continue to do what it has done for centuries: provide a place where free speech and academic freedom flourish. This means protecting independence in academic study, ensuring academics are free from political interference, and providing students with opportunities to hear and challenge a diverse range of views.

To view the article in the Guardian please visit:

Professor Beer has also written an article for the Times Higher Education:

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