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.