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Monday, September 20, 1999 Published at 17:03 GMT 18:03 UK

Universities 'riddled with spies' - professor

Edinburgh University wound up its defence studies centre

Britain's universities were "riddled" with spies during the Cold War years of the 1970s, according to a leading defence academic.

The former head of Edinburgh University's Centre for Defence Studies said his students included a "large number of people working for foreign agencies".

Professor John Erickson said spies were so prevalent that he had to take steps to protect his own independence.

[ image: Professor John Erickson: Authority on Russian affairs]
Professor John Erickson: Authority on Russian affairs
Professor Erickson's allegations follow revelations about Doctor Robin Pearson, a lecturer at Hull University and graduate of Edinburgh University, who was unmasked as a former spy by the BBC.

It was revealed that he was recruited by the East German secret police, the Stasi, while on an exchange course from Edinburgh and went on to spy for the Communists until the Berlin Wall fell.

Prof Erickson's allegations have been played down by Edinburgh University which said it was "not surprised" by the presence of foreign agents given the sensitive nature of the professor's work.

Speaking to the Edinburgh Evening News, he said: "There were a large number of people working undercover for foreign agencies at the university at the time, as far as I was concerned."

Soviet Union

The retired academic, who was one of Britain's most respected authorities on the Soviet Union, said that to maintain his independence he had to take extensive precautions.

He said that no-one was ever allowed to use or bring in classified materials and there was no encouragement of any work which would not be thoroughly academic.

And he added that under no circumstances would anybody be encouraged to undertake classified work.

[ image: Robin Pearson: Expert in German history]
Robin Pearson: Expert in German history
Prof Erickson, an authority on strategy and military matters in the Middle East, the Soviet Union and China, turned a blind eye to investigating the background of some of his students who seemed suspiciously inquisitive.

He did not know who they were or what they were doing and was only concerned in the academic aspects of the course.

"If anyone asked me something inappropriate I would refuse point blank to answer them," he said.

Britain Betrayed
He alleged his was not the only affected department.

He said: "But this didn't go on in Edinburgh University - it went on in all universities across Britain, and a lot of my colleagues should have taken similar action."

Edinburgh wound up its defence studies centre some years ago, said a university spokeswoman.

"It is hardly surprising that at the time there should be outside interests in the centre and the areas in which research was taking place," she added.

"It is clear Professor Erickson was very alert to the need to maintain academic independence."

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