Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has promised a “crackdown” on university academics who promote pro-Putin propaganda.
In education questions on Monday, chairman of the Commons Education Committee Robert Halfon said that an investigation by LBC had exposed “pro-Putinist propaganda at some of our leading universities”.
He added that at Leeds University, a retired professor, Ray Bush, had made reference to the United States having “chemical warfare installations in Ukraine – that’s a lie, as he knows, being spread by the Kremlin”.
At Edinburgh University, Professor Tim Hayward retweeted a Russian representative to the United Nations describing the attack on Mariupol’s maternity hospital as “fake news”, he said, while at Leicester University another academic had described “ludicrous disinformation on both sides” and “boasted about appearing on Russia Today”.
Prof Hayward, who specialises in environmental political theory, retweeted a Russian government official who branded the Mariupol maternity ward attack “fake news”, and added: “As long as we’re still able to hear two sides of the story we should continue striving to do so.”
Prof Bush, a professor emeritus of African studies and development politics at the University of Leeds, tweeted: “US says Russia comment that Washington has chemical warfare installations in Ukraine is a lie – who would we believe about that?”
Mr Halfon asked whether these universities would be contacted directly by Mr Zahawi, to stop them acting as “useful idiots” for Vladimir Putin’s atrocities.
Mr Zahawi said higher and further education minister Michelle Donelan was “already on the case” and was in contact with the institutions.
“Putin and his cronies are a malign influence on anyone in this country buying their false narrative, and I have to repeat it is a false and dangerous narrative, and we will crack down on it hard,” he added.
Prof Hayward told the PA news agency that he was tweeting in a personal capacity and that he did not “retweet but quote-tweeted”.
He said he did not endorse the “categorical fake news allegation” and that he quote-tweeted many people who he disagreed with.
“I recognise propaganda can abound on all sides. I am not pro-Russia and emphatically not pro-Putin,” he said.
“For all that, though, having learned lessons from Iraq WMD [weapons of mass destruction] lies and others since, I believe that citizens should keep a watchful eye on information that can be used to escalate tensions and war. I have not repeated any narrative,” he added.
A University of Edinburgh spokesperson said: “The University of Edinburgh joins colleagues in the sector in condemning the invasion of Ukraine and we fully endorse the Universities UK statement on this issue.”
Principal and vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mathieson recently issued a statement condemning the invasion of Ukraine and committing to review exchange programmes or academic projects with Russian universities.
“We do not comment on individual members of our staff,” the spokesperson added.
A spokesperson for the University of Leeds said: “As Mr Halfon himself states, Ray Bush has retired from the University.
“The University of Leeds condemns in the strongest possible terms the abhorrent wave of violence unleashed by the Russian government through its invasion of Ukraine. We made this clear to our entire university community in a statement issued last week.”
President and vice-chancellor of Leicester University Nishan Canagarajah said: “Our university community has, like many, watched with horror as the Russian government’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has escalated over the last few weeks.”
“This action is profoundly disturbing and I speak on behalf of the entire university in condemning the Kremlin’s actions and offering our unequivocal support for the people of Ukraine and our peers at Ukrainian universities.
“We are taking active steps to support our staff, students and peers who’ve been affected by the situation and we will continue to follow advice from the UK Government to find further ways to help those in need during this terrible conflict.”
Mr Zahawi told the Commons that Ukrainian university students would be able to extend their leave to remain in the UK or switch over to graduate visas.
“We’re working across Government to support Ukrainian students in the UK by introducing a new humanitarian route,” he said, adding that there would be a statement later on Monday from Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, on the issue, which would “provide them with the opportunity to extend their leave to remain or switch to graduate visas”.
Mr Zahawi added that Ukrainian refugee pupils would be supported in starting school in the UK.
“We’re making plans to make sure, as we did with the Afghan resettlement, that every child gets into the appropriate early years, primary or secondary, further or higher education,” he said.
He added if there was any gap in their accessing education, he would look into this, and that he knew anecdotally many schools were “excited” to welcome Ukrainian refugee children to their classrooms.
On Friday, Mr Zahawi announced that 100,000 refugee pupils would be welcomed into UK schools, while the Oak National Academy online classroom would provide auto-translated versions of its lessons in Ukrainian and Russian.
In the session, ministers were also told that teachers were being “aided and abetted” by “politically-motivated trade unions” to push a “far-left agenda”.
Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis said that a “minority of woke warrior teachers think it is acceptable to push extremist nonsense onto pupils such as white privilege and try to cancel important historical figures such as Sir Winston Churchill”.
“However these teachers are also aided and abetted by some trade unions such as the National Education Union (NEU),” he added.
“The failed and disgraced NEU demanded the welfare state was reformed before approving pupils going back to school in their ridiculous 100-point plan and its president blames Nato instead of Vladimir Putin for the illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine,” he said.
He asked schools minister Robin Walker if he would hold unions to account to prevent them using teachers to push a “far-left agenda”.
Mr Walker said Mr Gullis, who is a former teacher, “always speaks out bravely and from his own personal experience”, adding: “Pupils must form their own political views. Schools should not indoctrinate. They should not encourage children to pin their colours to any particular political mast.”
He said that the Government’s new guidance on political impartiality in schools would help them to ensure that “any engagement doesn’t breach their legal duties”.
A spokesperson for the NEU said: “The NEU and the NEU president have been very clear – the blame for the atrocities being committed in Ukraine lie squarely at Vladimir Putin’s door.
“As a former teacher, Mr Gullis will be aware of how teachers skilfully deal with sensitive issues in an impartial way with their pupils.
“As a former trade union representative for one of our sister unions, Mr Gullis will also be well aware that the NEU is not affiliated to any political party. The NEU is the largest unaffiliated union in the country.
“His constituents might well question whether their MP’s attention should instead be focused on the Government’s unambitious and poorly executed plans for education recovery from the pandemic.”