Posted tagged ‘CBI’

The CBI, Scotland’s independence referendum and the universities

April 24, 2014

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.

Freeing the universities? Or killing them?

October 14, 2010

It seems likely that the discussion about the real effect of the Browne proposals for higher education in England (Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education) will go on for a while, and will probably get another shot in the arm when the UK government reveals its spending plans shortly. The latter is important because the impact of the recommendations, if implemented, will depend to a large extent on what level of public funding may still be available. At the moment speculation ranges from the idea that current levels of investment will continue and fees will be additional income for institutions, to the more or less complete withdrawal of public subsidy. Browne himself assumes that a fee income of £7,000 per student will represent the status quo, which would suggest a fairly dramatic reduction of public funding.

Reactions to the proposals have, as would be expected, varied depending on who is speaking. The Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has welcomed the report, saying that the recommendations will ‘help to support a sustainable, high-quality university system open to students from all backgrounds’. On the other hand the University and College Union has stated that they are the ‘final nail in the coffin for affordable higher education’. The response of Universities UK is measured, and on the whole positive. The journal Times Higher Education has today published an editorial in which it suggests a somewhat apocalyptic vision:

‘UK higher education is in for a tumultuous and brutal time that could include mergers, aggressive takeovers, private-sector competition, university break-ups and failing institutions. And with sweeping cuts ahead, the sector may find it has no alternative but to accept these huge structural – and philosophical – changes.’

What the reality will be may be too early to say. But it is also clear that while the report addresses England only, other parts of these islands, including Scotland and Ireland, will be fundamentally affected. In Ireland it must be likely that the Browne report will influence thinking on higher education funding in the context of the Hunt report (always assuming that this ever sees the light of day). In Scotland the question must be how public funding of higher education can be sustained at manageable levels in the absence of fees and in the light of dramatic cuts in England. In that context it is remarkable that Sir Andrew Cubie, who ten years ago presided over a report that led to the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland, is now arguing that Scottish graduates ‘should make a contribution’.

One way or another, there are interesting times ahead.