Earlier this month the Vice-Chancellor of Worchester University, David Green, received a chilling note on House of Commons letterhead from Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris. Green is asked by the MP for two pieces of information. First, to supply "the names of professors" at his university teaching European affairs "with particular reference to Brexit". Secondly, Green is asked to provide copies of all syllabi and "links to online lectures" on Brexit.
This letter has only come to light because Green has gone public with it making clear he will provide no such information. It is reported that Heaton-Harris has sent the same request to all Vice-Chancellors.
I can save Heaton-Harris the trouble of sending me a letter. As Dean of Durham Law School, I will refuse any such request. If he wants to learn about European affairs, I cannot recommend any law school more than ours - EU law is one of our core strengths we continue to build on and we're proud of the outstanding teaching, research, impact and engagement we deliver in this broad area. No MP will frighten us off from our globally excellent research environment as a top 40 QS World Ranking law school or tell us what we can or cannot deliver in our legal education with our best ever National Student Survey results achieved this year.
There are several concerns I have about this letter. The first is why this information is being collected. If Heaton-Harris really wanted to know what modules on European matters are being taught in higher education, he could familiarise himself with them by simply going online.
Of course, Heaton-Harris goes further wanting names of individuals that teach these subjects. But why are they to be singled out? Is this an effort to name and shame departments and universities into closing down debates over Europe and Brexit? Is this an MP trying to put pressure on institutions to shy away from looking too closely at an area of government policy on Brexit?
McCarthyism fears have some fuel in his requesting copies of links to actual classroom teaching. For what purpose is this information being sought (and which is normally protected so forbidden from being shared outside registered staff and students on a module)? Colleagues are right to sound the alarm.
But most of all, Heaton-Harris isn't any Member of Parliament. He is a Government Whip. This is what concerns me especially. MPs in his position are tasked with supporting the government getting its way in Parliament. They try to get others to follow a line, to get in line where possible. Is this what he's trying to do - get us all "in line" - through this sinister-looking letter?
More importantly, what knowledge or support does Heaton-Harris have from the Prime Minister or any Cabinet members for this letter? Is this a rogue action for which he should retract immediately and apologise? Or is an activity that fulfils some aim or purpose from Theresa May or her ministers?
Until these important questions are answered, I don't see this as a mere letter that should never have been sent. I want to know what connection this action has to May and her senior team as there may be more to this story until we learn otherwise.
In the meantime, I advise all senior colleagues in higher education to refuse this ill-advised request as I will.