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Expert comment: Brexit and academic principles

michael holmes 150 Thursday 26 October 2017

Dr Michael Holmes, from the History and Politics department, responds to Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris’s request for universities to share details on their teaching of Brexit.  

So it seems that Chris Heaton-Harris, was only “doing some research for a book” when he sent a letter to all university vice-chancellors asking for a list of all tutors lecturing on Brexit. Well, I value research, and I also know that good research often comes about by making mistakes and learning from them. So I trust that Mr Heaton-Harris will learn from his error.

But I also know that there are a few academic principles at stake here. The first relates to academic freedom, and this has been well aired in relation to this issue. But just to add my two cent(ime)s worth, Brexit has been deeply polarising, and while both camps exaggerated their arguments during the referendum, in a context where a leading Conservative politician (Michael Gove) could say “we have had enough of experts”, it is very Important to insist that academics are free to pursue their ideas without external interference.

However, this does not mean that I and my fellow academics can do whatever we want. We also have to abide by a code of academic ethics. I cannot conduct research without having ethical approval, so that there is no danger of (deliberately or inadvertently) asking inappropriate questions. And another important ethical principle we are required to be aware of is power imbalances, to make sure we do not abuse our position of trust and authority. That is even more important for government politicians, who have far more power.

This leads me on to the third principle, one of academic trust. I should start with a spoiler alert: I am a pro-European (though I do not think that is necessarily the same thing as being pro-EU). But when I go into a classroom to discuss Europe with my students, when I speak on the radio or on TV about the EU, as I have done, when I conduct research interviews with politicians from wildly Euro-sceptic to wildly Euro-fanatic parties and all stations in between, I take it on trust that they expect me to be fair. Not to be impartial or unbiased, because we all have our opinions, but to be fair.

So I would say in response, trust your academics. We are passionate about our subject, but we are also trained to control that passion and to be fair, and to allow others the same freedom of interpretation that we expect to enjoy.

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