One of the peculiarities of language is that the same form of words can mean entirely different things depending on the speaker/writer, the occasion, the intent and the preceding context of interaction. Chris Heaton-Harris is a Conservative MP and government whip. His unusual letter to university vice-chancellors, sent at the start of October 2017, has been brought to the attention of the press by Professor David Green, vice-chancellor of Worcester University. On face value, it bears all the hallmarks of linguistic politeness. “I was wondering if you would be so kind” and “I would be much obliged”. Nevertheless, David Green’s reaction would resonate with most academics. According to The Guardian, he felt a chill down his spine when he read the “sinister” request: “This letter just asking for information appears so innocent but is really so, so dangerous,” he says. “Here is the first step to the thought police, the political censor and newspeak, naturally justified as ‘the will of the British people’, a phrase to be found on Mr Heaton-Harris’s website.”
Another peculiarity of language is that meanings which are obvious to one group can be refused by another. Step forward chief Tory apologist Andrea Leadsom. In her lunchtime Radio 4 interview it is clear she was inclined towards the polite reading of Heaton-Harris’ letter. “It does seem to me to be a bit odd that universities should react in such a negative way to a fairly courteous request,” she said.
Who is to know what was in the whip’s mind? Perhaps he is genuinely interested in filling in the gaps in his knowledge of European Studies. Perhaps he wants to conduct a survey on the diversity of opinion on Brexit. But he is on record as a Euorsceptic, and universities are known to be places with a great deal to lose if the UK proceeds with separation from the European Community. The suspicion of many academics on my Twitter timeline was that Heaton-Harris was attempting a clumsy exercise in political coercion. Oddly enough, the letter evokes another activity which many academics consider inappropriate surveillance – ‘lecture capture’. There are many entirely legitimate reasons to record lectures for students to access later, but now, this incident has gifted refuseniks a really good reason to resist.
In time for the 1 o’clock news on BBC Radio 4’s World at One, Heaton-Harris tweeted: “To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit”. As bad luck would have it, Minister for Universities, Jo Johnson had just tweeted a couple of hours previously: “Academic freedom -which we’ve just entrenched in statute in Higher Ed &Research Bill 2017! – is core to success +better protected than ever”.
Oops. Clearly the Whips’ Office had forgotten to copy him in to the letter, and this just made Johnson’s assertion seem disingenuous, and not only because of Heaton-Harris’ blunder. For this is the government which is seeking to make scrutiny of university safeguards over academic freedom a condition for registration with the new regulator, the Office for Students. Perhaps protesting too much, Johnson bit the bullet again at 1.30pm: “Academic freedom absolutely fundamental and protected in statute in our recent Higher Education & Research Act 2017 http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2017/29/enacted …”
Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK moved swiftly on the UUK website to defend universities against a pernicious assault on their autonomy, “I would ask that Chris Heaton-Harris MP explains his motive for asking universities to share names of their European studies Professors, their course content and lecture notes. This request suggests an alarming attempt to censor or challenge academic freedom.” And just for good measure he decided to remind Jo Johnson that academic freedom has been enshrined in legislation since the 1988 Education Reform Act which “ensures that academic staff have freedom to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions”.
So what was it that allowed Heaton-Harris’ request to be recognised as a threat, not a request? Simply, it stood out as unprecedented. It was very specific to a controversial issue about which the government is defensive. Furthermore it asked for names of lecturers AND access to the actual lectures they delivered. It seems redolent of the recent intimidation and marginalization of climate change researchers in the US. And where goes climate change may follow research on evolution, fracking, sexuality, colonialism, petroleum engineering, election hacking and any number of other issues for which there is a prevailing body of knowledge and opinion which may unsettle politicians. Even if Heaton-Harris was motivated by desire for “an open and vigorous debate on Brexit”, he could still claim that it is impeded by a homogeneity of opinion in universities. In the United States such claims have spurred legislation to guarantee political ‘balance’ among university academics in Iowa public universities. Iowa Senate File 288, if enacted, would compel university appointment committees to consult voter registration records in order to hire comparable numbers of Democrat and Republican academics.
You’d like to think it couldn’t happen here, but these are very uncertain times in politics and education. Just as each new outrage from Donald Trump seems to allay the offensiveness of the next, we can predict interference in university autonomy will happen again, especially given the monstering that universities have endured over the summer and autumn. As Thomas Docherty tweeted, “The idea is that next time we will be less shocked. Ten times later, we will be expected to just accept it and comply. And some will, sadly.” But we must resist, and it is reassuring that Universities UK has recognised, and rejected, Heaton-Harris’ threat.