The CBI, Scotland’s independence referendum and the universities

The following article was first published today by the Press and Journal, Aberdeen.

Universities play a key role in the community. They are engines of invention and innovation, and they are also spaces for debate in which all voices are recognized and encouraged. It is not always an easy role to play, and it gets most complex when issues being debated are controversial or in any way difficult. In a few months Scotland will be invited to take one of the most important decisions in several generations: whether it wishes to be an independent country. As one would expect, there are strong opinions on this question, and there is a robust campaign taking place leading up to the referendum itself.

Last weekend the campaign gained a new active participant: the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) registered with the Electoral Commission as a supporter of the No campaign. In doing so it created issues for at least some of its members: those who might favour a Yes vote, and those whose duty it is to remain neutral; this latter group includes the universities.

I have no doubt that this CBI decision was a wrong decision. It had previously expressed concerns about the impact of independence (as was perfectly appropriate), but declaring itself as partisan on the issue was something different, creating real problems for organisations that, also perfectly appropriately, hold a different view. We were not consulted before the decision was taken, but if I had been, I would have offered a robust opinion in the matter.

Some universities reacted to the CBI move by resigning immediately from membership. RGU took a different approach. While I immediately said that we disapproved of the CBI decision, I wanted us to reflect on how we could best deal with the problem that had arisen and that was not of our making. We are an industry-focused university, with many links and partnerships in the business community. Equally, we need to be sure that we are both remaining neutral in this important national debate, but that we also provide a safe space for both sides in the debate.

These are the principles that we will apply as we move to decide how we should respond to the CBI move. That is the duty we owe to our students, our friends and our partners in the wider community.

Subsequent to the publication of this article by the Press and Journal, and after extensive consultation, I decided that RGU will suspend its membership of the CBI, and will review the position after the Referendum.

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11 Comments on “The CBI, Scotland’s independence referendum and the universities”

  1. Anon Says:

    You should have done this immediately! It is simply hypocritical of any current CBI members to remain so in light of CBI’s decision to register with the electoral commission supporting the Better Together campaign. People vote in a referendum, not companies or organisations who represent other companies. As quite simply they cannot speak for the voting intentions of the employees of any company.

    CBI did not consult any of its members as is clearly evidenced by the decision of many of its members immediately resigning membership of CBI.

    Any member of CBI with an ounce of integrity would of course distance themselves, it seems in light of public pressure being exerted on RGU, you have now decided to do what you should have done immediately.

    Pity you didn’t display this common sense before being pushed, your reputation has been sullied significantly by your own actions in attempting to rationalise your position. I believe the apt expression for many who were observing your obsfucatory tactics is…scunnered!

    Have a good day.

  2. Well done!
    An even playing field is required for the referendum and you have just removed a little tussock.

  3. V.H Says:

    By their actions they have rather neatly created the nascent CSI.

  4. no-name Says:

    “Equally, we need to be sure that we are both remaining neutral in this important national debate, but that we also provide a safe space for both sides in the debate.”

    How general is the first imperative asserted here?

    In the 19th century in the U.S., an important national debate on slavery raged. Would it have been inappropriate for universities to eschew neutrality in those circumstances also?

  5. Can anyone really remain neutral about a referendum that is deeply racist? Just imagine what would happen in England if the universities failed to act against an English Nationalist party! See for a discussion of Scots racism.

  6. Eddie Says:

    CBI does not care if a university suspends its membership, that too a post 92 university. More delusion and attempt to please the SNP and Mr Russell. If one has to experience so called racism (it is not strictly race hatred), speak in English accent in the Union Street in Aberdeen. If the English had votes, Scotland would have been independent by now.

    • I have to say that’s total nonsense. As it happens Union Street in Aberdeen is the place in Scotland – in the UK even – where you are least likely to experience racism or xenophobia. A significant proportion of the accents you’ll there there are in fact English.

      • Eddie Says:

        Touchy is it as a friend of SNP?
        Talking about nonsense, what you post as articles are always nonsensical,hence your minimal readership and a small core of faithful yes people.
        A busy VC checking his less well read blog within seconds of my posting! You seem not to know about the Union Street at all. Oh, your main campus has moved, I get it!
        BTW, “I decided that RGU will suspend its membership of the CBI, and will review the position after the Referendum”, seems that you do expect the YES votes to carry! .

        More delusion and attempt to please the SNP.

        • Eddie Says:

          I missed this:”A significant proportion of the accents you’ll there there are in fact English”
          Where are those Scots, then? Emigrated to England? Escaped to the countryside, leaving the Street to the masses of English students to stroll and enjoy the dereliction? After all, these fee paying English students keep many university departments there floating, help many academic managers to keep their performance bonuses and this is the “thank you” in return? Well, if that is the case, then you know better.

        • Well, if no one at all is interested in this blog, at least I have one diligent reader – you. And what could be nicer!

  7. Eddie Says:

    Blogs like this should discuss the talk by Chris Pyne, the Australian Education Minister, about the future of Australian higher education at a Policy Exchange event in London on 28 April 2014, reported in THES ( But Mr Russell will not like it of course.

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