Universities and the UK’s EU referendum

There is little doubt, one supposes, where the balance of opinion lies in the British university sector regarding EU membership. When the UK votes, in 2017 or whenever, on whether to stay in or leave the European Union, academics and students will probably vote overwhelmingly in favour of staying in. I say ‘probably’ because we cannot of course know for sure, but those voices that are most audible right now are all in favour of membership. This includes the universities themselves and their leaders, as formally represented in Universities UK – which has launched a ‘Universities for Europe’ campaign. And Professor Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool and Vice-President of UUK, has joined the board of the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign. In fact I know of no voice amongst the university sector’s leadership advocating a no vote, or even expressing any degree of uncertainty.

In case you were wondering whether all these EU supporters at the helm of higher education were representative of the wider community of staff and students, the answer is that they probably are. The Social Research Agency NatCen has published polling data showing that the young and educated overwhelmingly want to stay in the EU, in contrast with older and less educated people. Indeed on this blog a well respected academic from Dundee University last year argued a strong case for Britain’s continuing membership.

My purpose here is not to ask whether this great consensus of people is right; but rather what role, if any, universities should play in this debate, or indeed any other debate like it. Should universities be making the case, one way or another, for a particular position on an issue which the people are to be asked to vote?

There is no easy answer to this. When the Scottish independence referendum campaign was under way in 2014, the agreed position of Scotland’s universities was to highlight the issues that might affect higher education, but to avoid advocating a yes or a no vote. This avoided any division within the sector, and also allowed universities to do what they do best – analyse and explain. Universities were part of the national debate but were not partisan; and that may be a good position to occupy wherever a debate – with two civilised sides to the argument – is taking place in a society that is divided on the issue.

It is my hope that many academics will be heard in the national discussion about Britain’s future within or outside the EU. It is also perfectly good for academics to take sides publicly, on the assumption that they treat those who disagree with them with a degree of respect. But I do not believe that universities as institutions should be partisan, not least because if they are, the force of any substantive arguments they may wish to make will be weakened. Avoiding a recommendation to citizens to vote one way or another, while setting out the issues that should be considered, is the best position of institutional integrity.

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6 Comments on “Universities and the UK’s EU referendum”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    “But I do not believe that universities as institutions should be partisan, not least because if they are, the force of any substantive arguments they may wish to make will be weakened.”
    I fundamentally disagree with this statement, the adjective partisan has mostly negative connotations, and yet one of its synonyms, ‘champion’ is more appropriate in this case. Universities need to champion the ideas that are in the best interest of the country at a particular historical juncture, the idea of universities as ‘neutral entities’ could be out of Alice in Wonderland. Universities throughout their history have always been powerful social and political actors, lofty views of neutrality only reinforce the trite stereotype of the scholar locked in the ivory tower. And yet universities often indulge in self-mythologies, a similar one to neutrality is that of meritocracy (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2005/may/03/highereducation.accesstouniversity). The problem with myths is that they can turn sour, sliding into collusion and complacency.
    Perhaps integrity, for institutions and individuals alike, lies in the courage of one’s opinions and in acting upon them.

    • Hm, Anna, I’m not sure I can recall any neutral universities in Alice 🙂

      I think you have to distinguish between universities and the academics who work in them. As I said myself, academics ned to be there in all the debates – that is their role. Universities as institutions should not be – that is not what they are for,

      • anna notaro Says:

        you are right, no neutral universities in Alice, it was obviously a figure of speech to represent how the idea of a neutral university belongs in the realm of fiction rather than in reality, universities and politics share a history, think of the old university constituencies (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_constituency), besides universities have no qualms in ‘lobbying’ governments when they see fit, not sure why they should not be active agents in the political debate on this occasion…

  2. Vince Says:

    There is a visceral reaction to the EU, and it isn’t a good one. All over Europe there is the belief that the institutions are populated by untrammelled Sir Humphrey’s. Do you really think the population of the UK, of which the education industry is part, will react well to what went on in Portugal. That FvP is the beginning of the end.

    • What in Portugal are you referring to, Vincent?

      • Vince Says:

        When the head of State decided to even think about anything other than the Constitution of the State and the result of a democratic election he rearranged everything.
        “In 40 years of democracy, no government in Portugal has ever depended on the support of anti-European forces, that is to say forces that campaigned to abrogate the Lisbon Treaty, the Fiscal Compact, the Growth and Stability Pact, as well as to dismantle monetary union and take Portugal out of the euro, in addition to wanting the dissolution of NATO. This is the worst moment for a radical change to the foundations of our democracy. After we carried out an onerous programme of financial assistance, entailing heavy sacrifices, it is my duty, within my constitutional powers, to do everything possible to prevent false signals being sent to financial institutions, investors and markets.”

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