Rebecca Lowe Coulson was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
You shouldn’t have to watch Armando Iannucci’s new film, The Death of Stalin, to learn that the iron grip and surveilling eye of the Communist Party intruded into every aspect of Soviet life. Some degree of general awareness of that is probably why the film doesn’t really work. Jumping from genuinely hilarious takes on “unanimous” Politburo voting to serious depictions of dissenters being tortured and killed leaves its tone, at best, unbalanced.
It’s probably good that Iannucci didn’t have the courage to make more fun of mass murder and personal tragedy, but an opportunity was missed, nonetheless — whether to amuse or to educate. After all, much still needs to be said about the disparities in general discourse about the dictators of the 20th Century. While nobody lacks awareness of the horrors of the Nazi regime (denial isn’t a lack of awareness), too many remain somewhat rose-tinted in their impressions of life under the leadership of Stalin and other repressive Communists.
So, the obvious thing now would be to talk about Corbyn. But the latest relevant British political incident comes not from the socialist factions of the Labour Party. Rather, yesterday, the news broke that Chris Heaton-Harris, a Tory whip, had written to the heads of UK universities asking if they could “be so kind as to supply me with the names of professors at your establishment who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit”. He also asked to be “provided with a copy of the syllabus and links to the online lectures which relate to this area”.
Thankfully, responses to this news have been almost as unanimous as one of those Politburo votes. Academics and researchers have been tweeting against it in force, referring to Heaton-Harris’s letter as “sinister” and “McCarthyist”. And Downing Street has clarified that it “was sent in a personal capacity”, adding that “free speech is one of the foundations on which our universities are built and of course it should be respected”.
Whether or not he was acting off his own bat, the Tory whip’s approach is alarming and was clearly inappropriate: the state should not be interfering with universities’ curricula, whether by intimation or intimidation. But that’s not to suggest there aren’t other problems here.
It is unsurprising that few UK sectors have shown more concern over the public’s decision to leave the EU than Higher Education (HE): key questions relating to migration and funding remain largely unanswered. More topical, however, in this Heaton-Harris moment, is that our universities have provided a disappointingly narrow approach to understanding and discussing Brexit. It is still the case that the overwhelming majority of academics are pro-Remain, and many have seemed — both before and after the referendum — unable to understand the need for universities to provide a space for balanced public debate. Pointing this out is not in any sense to curtail the content of that debate. Rather it is to expand it, while asking whether it is appropriate for the leader of an undergraduate course, or the determiner of HE grant funding, to proclaim openly — on pubic social media or in an ex-officio capacity — that not only are their highly emotive personal views indisputably morally correct, but also that those views are, to their mind, the status quo amongst their colleagues.
The heavy-handed and relentlessly one-sided approach that many individuals and institutions within HE have taken over what is a crucial national conversation has been depressing. This was pointed up in a recent Guardian comment piece by an anonymous pro-Leave academic, which revealed the disturbing way in which they had been treated by their friends and colleagues in the sector — many of whom, at best, were “simply astonished to meet a leave voter in person”. The writer goes on to profess concern about “how negative opinions translate into future employment”.
So, what should our response to all this be? It is tempting to think — as Heaton-Harris, an open Eurosceptic, presumably did — that it’s important to educate people about how a good Brexit is in the interests of the country. And that we’ll all lose out economically if the positive facts of the matter aren’t laid out clearly. Some might even think it the state’s duty to ensure this happens.
A 1961 UN report, entitled Higher Education in the USSR — which was written by Soviet experts, and formed part of UNESCO’s ‘Formal Programmes of International Co-operation between Universities’ — explains that
‘A university in a Socialist country is first of all an educational establishment training highly qualified specialists, brought up in the spirit of selfless service to the people who are building a Communist society. Some foreign circles hold the view that universities need autonomy, that they have to be independent of society and the State, the view that the task of universities is to propagate knowledge, irrespective whom this knowledge serves. But let us turn to the facts. Any university is bound by thousands of threads with society, with the State. It itself is a product of this society. The idea of the autonomy of the university is an abstraction although it is frequently cloaked in the garb of florid phrases.’
And ok, sure, that year the USSR won both the world chess championship and the Gagarin round of the space race — and Stalin had been dead for almost a decade. But a constant embrace of “the idea of the autonomy of the university” is what, over time, has made British universities great. Unrivalled except by America in all the standard rankings, why else do so many Europeans want to study and work in them?
That’s not to suggest that our universities don’t have special societal obligations, of course — not only because they are largely funded by taxpayers’ money, but also because their main purpose is surely indeed, as John Henry Newman argued, to propagate knowledge. We might, therefore, expect those in HE to meet “political goals”, such as working hard to improve the university application rates of disadvantaged children, and committing to helping with regional development.
In a free society, however, the actual propagation of knowledge should be free from political prejudice — whether that is the prejudice of the state, or of the teachers, themselves. There is a legitimate question to be asked, therefore, about whether UK universities have, of late, been fulfilling their duty to provide a model of unbiased civil and reasoned discourse for the rest of society. So don’t let’s be distracted by foolish interventions like Heaton-Harris’s — what is at stake here is far too important.