Last week we learned that Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris sent all Vice-Chancellors a letter requesting they send him a list of lectures on European affairs and Brexit take place at their universities, which staff lecture in this area and copies of both their teaching materials and links to classroom discussions.
His letter was revealed by Worcester University Vice-Chancellor David Green which launched a furious reaction by academics and the public. Heaton-Harris's letter has been described as everything from McCarthyism to Orwellian. In a tweet that went viral, I made clear any such request would be refused - that we are universities and "not thought police". While information about modules and staff research interests can be widely available online, teaching materials are commercially-sensitive and classroom instruction data protected so Heaton-Harris's request went far beyond any Freedom of Information Act request in seeking information that could not be provided.
Neither Heaton-Harris nor his colleagues were able to say what the purpose was for making the request. Universities minister Jo Johnson speculated that maybe he was planning to write a book someday although this was not mentioned in the letter to universities. I raised concerns that the intention was to intimidate academics into silence over Brexit to help tackle the endless stream of bad news the government has seen in EU negotiations that have gone virtually nowhere despite high expectations raised from the start.
It comes as no surprise to see pro-Brexit tabloids like the Daily Mail were ready to strike back. Front pages claiming academics were the new enemies of the people laid bare the real reason why academics were so alarmed by Heaton-Harris's request as individuals and institutions were named and shamed for little more than gossip and innuendo.
While the headlines spoke of pro-EU bias in lectures, the fine print exposed the lack of evidence which spoke volumes. All that is found are a couple isolated one-off incidents where pro-Brexit students might have heard someone disagree with them campaigning for leaving the EU outside lecture halls. In fact, the Mail provides not a single example of bias in lectures at any universities. The only incidents they find to condemn all happened elsewhere or off-campus through protected free speech. The attack is dishonest, biased and an attempt at threatening basic civil liberties of political speech that the Mail exercises in its own front page. Hypocrisy is too kind a description for it.
No one has made any complaint about teaching standards. We have a range of checks including the National Student Survey, external academic examiners and the government's newly imposed Teaching Excellence Framework to check quality. This isn't about how good lectures are, but an attack on discussions it doesn't to happen because it makes the government uncomfortable.
Heaton-Harris's letter was more than an attack on academic freedom, but an attempt at scapegoating. First the judiciary is called enemies of the people for upholding parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law and now the enemies are universities. But who will he and his pro-Brexit MPs smear next after universities? Promises were made on a red bus and in the course of a campaign that aren't being kept. This is not because of judges or scholars - and maybe if they were listened to more carefully the negotiations in Brussels would make more progress.
But Heaton-Harris is also not just any MP. He is a junior government whip. Their job is to keep others in line supporting the Prime Minister - whips don't do rogue. The Prime Minister distanced herself from his letter, but serious questions must be asked about who knew or supported Heaton-Harris's letter to all universities - and far beyond his constituency in Daventry. Is he asking what more senior members in government want to know but don't want to be seen asking? And if so, why would the government want to be producing lists of private citizens that are critically of their policies while lawfully expressing their opinions? Until we have clear answers, the public has a right - even a duty - to be very concerned about a weak government spinning out of control.
This is not over yet. Despite no one in government coming out in support of the letter, I understand from colleagues that some institutions intend to reply to Heaton-Harris's request because they feel there is no other choice. Over 2,500 academics and supporters from the UK and around the world have signed a petition I launched calling on universities minister Jo Johnson to write to all Vice-Chancellors confirming none are required to respond: "In so doing, he would reaffirm his government's commitment to academic freedom, debate, and the high quality of teaching standards at our country's higher education institutions. We are global leaders that should be championed not enemies to be silenced."
The sooner Johnson can draw a line under this unfortunate matter, the better. Nor would it require a u-turn. If the Prime Minister and he support academic freedom and free speech, then our petition's demands are an easy request to deliver. If they do not, their actions will speak much louder than their words with a chilling effect on our campuses.
Thom Brooks is Dean of Durham Law School @thom_brooks