The issue of the way controversial political issues impact on teaching at Universities hit the headlines with the (to say the least) awkward request of Chris Heaton-Harris, Conservative MP for Daventry, to Universities to declare what they are teaching their students about Brexit and to provide a list of those involved in doing so.
The media furore that erupted made me think. Unlike my colleagues however, I haven’t been thinking about academic freedom, outraged at the inappropriateness (and questionable legality) of this request. As an academic, I have been thinking about how my political views colour my teaching, what this means for my students, and whether it is the job of the government to be concerned about any of this. I am thankful for the opportunity to address this in a serious manner.
To be fair to Mr Heaton-Harris, I am probably exactly the sort of person he is worried about lecturing on Brexit. I am a European, a Remain campaigner and a very vocal opponent of most things Tory. To make matters worse (one could argue) I am a lawyer, teaching on Financial Regulation, Banking and Business Law, all areas hugely impacted by Brexit.
How do my politics colour my teaching? The first ingredient of successful teaching is being able to communicate ideas and knowledge to the students. In order to do this, one needs to be passionate about their subject, but also knowledgeable about the wider context within which their substantive expertise resides. This context is very often (especially in the case of legal studies) political. My job as a teacher is not to be a cheerleader for any political manifesto. My job is to analyse and critique. How can I debate the consequences of the potential loss of financial passporting with my students and not reveal my personal conviction (borne out of research and scholarship) that this is a terrible calamity for the financial industry? How can I encourage my students to examine and critique the core issues that affect the employment market in which they will emerge without highlighting the dangers that Brexit poses to them, personally and professionally?
Am I subconsciously trying to turn my students against Brexit? Does Mr Heaton-Harris and those who have come out in his support have a point? Are there hordes of bearded lefty academics poisoning young minds against what the Tories perceive to be a national effort? Should there be an attempt to balance opinions in teaching, as our friends across the Atlantic have been suggesting? Trumpian America does indeed bear similarities to Brexit Britain, one of which is concern about hipster academics conspiring to turn the young against the current teams in power. I see why Mr Heaton-Harris and his colleagues find this a reason to fret. But, there is a solution, a much simpler one than lists and documents. The solution is honesty. Being upfront about one’s beliefs sets the stage from the word go, it allows the material to disentangle itself from the person of the presenter. It lays the truth bare, open to dissection.
I start my classes by declaring my affiliations, background and beliefs to the extent that they touch upon the subject of the day. I offer my students a range of literature, admit which works I agree with and encourage students to disagree with me, to prove me wrong. The task I have set my Banking students is to discuss a post ‘passport’ future for the City. Believing that it will not be rosy, does not prevent me from encouraging others to reach their own conclusions. Mr Heaton-Harris ought not to worry about me and my colleagues poisoning minds against Brexit.
And there is another reason why all this is not a concern. Tory policies have effectively privatised our universities. Our fee paying students support us. We do not answer to our former paymaster (the state), we answer to our ‘customers’. Tory policies have ensured that those eligible to vote for Mr Heaton-Harris have all but disappeared from the majority of our classes. Most of my students are from overseas, engaged in a brief spell in London combining high level study with a bit of, I guess, Brexit disaster tourism. The minds of young British voters will mostly go unspoiled by university education in general, never mind Remainer propaganda, thanks to the efforts of Mr Heaton-Harris and his colleagues on the government benches.
The best antidote to bias and politicisation is study and reflection, not lists and suppression. I am not seriously threatened by suggestions of McCarthyism. The survival of my institution, the prospects of my students, the rights of my colleagues are imperiled by Brexit in more immediate ways than government gag orders and threats.
I would welcome the opportunity to return feedback to Mr Heaton-Harris were he to attempt the same assessments as my students. I would enjoy nothing more than to be convinced I am wrong.