Socialist Worker

After Heaton-Harris - what are the real threats to academic freedom?

by Alex Callinicos
Issue No. 2578

Academic freedom in universities must be defended through struggle

Academic freedom in universities must be defended through struggle (Pic: Pablo Fernandez/Flickr)

Was the Heaton-Harris affair just a storm in a teacup? Christopher Heaton-Harris is the pro-Leave Tory whip who wrote to university vice-chancellors asking for information about “professors involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit”.

He rightly attracted a storm of criticism. Sally Hunt of the University and College Union said “this attempt to compile a hit-list of professors has the acrid whiff of McCarthyism about it.” Chris Patten, the Tory chancellor of Oxford University, called it “idiotic Leninism”.

Theresa May rapidly disowned Heaton-Harris. Her office said, “Free speech is one of the foundations on which our universities are built and of course it should be respected.”

Higher education minister Jo Johnson rushed onto the BBC’s Today programme to reaffirm the government’s commitment to academic freedom. Universities, he said, “are autonomous and private institutions, largely, and we are deeply respectful of that”. We’ll come back to that “largely”.

Heaton-Harris hadn’t the guts to defend his intervention. No doubt it reflected Brexiteers’ paranoia that their victory in last year’s vote will be stolen. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that no one’s plotting against you.

I must have been one of the very few professors of European Studies to have voted against the European Union (EU). In my experience academics specialising in the EU tend to identify with the project of deepening EU integration.

There is an element of material self-interest here. The European Commission has used its Jean Monnet Programme of sponsored professorships, centres and courses to promote research supportive of the EU.

But this isn’t the main reason why so many academics oppose Brexit. British universities have benefitted more broadly from EU research funding and from the inflow of talent that free movement has encouraged.

Academics fear that Brexit will undermine all this. Most also mistakenly value the EU as a progressive institution.


The idea of Brexiteers meddling in academic teaching and research to promote what Heaton-Harris called “an open and vigorous debate on Brexit” is repugnant. But no one should look to the Tory government to defend academic freedom.

A few days before the Heaton-Harris row blew up, Johnson threatened to fine, suspend, or even deregister universities that fail to defend free speech.

His target was student campaigns seeking to challenge the racism, sexism, and homophobia that are deeply embedded in universities as they are in the rest of British society.

This isn’t the only government attempt to control debate in the “largely” “autonomous and private” universities. The Prevent “anti-radicalisation” programme has for several years been used to monitor and sometimes ban political activity among students—particularly Muslim students.

In some ways most sinister is the government’s attempt to turn academics into instruments of the Border Agency. Universities receiving licences to take students from outside the EU on what are called Tier 4 visas must closely supervise these students. Academics may find their class attendance registers becoming evidence used to justify deportations.

These examples reveal the limits of the usual justification of academic freedom—that universities pursue knowledge for its own sake. Universities are institutions of capitalist society that provide it with skilled labour power, useful research, and intellectual legitimation. Therefore all the antagonisms of that society—economic, social, political, and ideological—run through them.

This has always been true, but is getting worse. This is partly because of the efforts at government regulation I’ve described. More fundamentally, universities in Britain are now businesses striving to expand by attracting research funding, increasingly from corporations, and by teaching ever larger numbers of students. The dominant university culture of target-driven management is deeply demoralising.

This doesn’t mean that the study, research and debate that go on in universities aren’t of great value. But they will only be defended and strengthened through struggle against the pressures to subordinate them to capitalist priorities. Students, academics, and other university workers will have to organise and unite to wage this struggle.

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