Professor John Vinney, Bournemouth University Vice Chancellor, has responded to a letter sent by Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris.
In the letter, which was sent to several universities on the 3rd October, the MP requests details about the names of those who are involved with teaching about Brexit, a copy of the relevant syllabus and links to online lectures.
The Vice Chancellor’s office confirmed to the Breaker that a response was sent, which included a link to publicly available information on the university’s website.
The Bournemouth University branch of the University and College Union (UCU) has confirmed that before the response was sent, the Vice Chancellor’s office requested details from senior staff at the university. It is understood this information was to be included in the reply, but it would appear the Vice Chancellor changed his mind.
UCU branch chair, Crispin Farbrother, said: “The UCU Branch were very disappointed with the VC’s initial response and request for the Heads of Education to commence collating some of the information for a response to the letter sent by Chris Heaton-Harris MP.”
“BU is a place where received wisdom can be challenged and controversial ideas debated. We therefore welcome the VC’s change of mind and his decision to not respond positively to the letter’s misguided and inappropriate request.”
The letter from Mr Heaton-Harris has been criticised by many in the higher education sector, who interpreted it as a threat to academic freedom.
Professor Vinney has not been available for comment, but earlier he retweeted comments by Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, in which he said: “Academic freedom absolutely fundamental and protected in statute in our recent Higher Education & Research Act 2017″.
Mr Heaton-Harris responded to the controversy on Twitter:
To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit.
— Chris Heaton-Harris (@chhcalling) October 24, 2017
On Wednesday Jo Johnson claimed the letter, which was written on official House of Commons letter headed paper, was gathering research for a book. Mr Johnson added the letter “probably should not have been sent”.
Dr Shelley Thompson, programme leader of BA Politics at Bournemouth University, said: “The concern is there would be a consequence for compiling this information in that particular way, especially when it feels politically motivated.”
“It’s incredibly important for us to be able, as academics, to research ideas to think about things to unpick challenging topics.”
Downing Street has since said that Heaton-Harris was not acting on behalf of the government.
The Breaker has requested a copy of the Vice Chancellor’s response.
Additional reporting by Hronn Magnusdottir