The Brexit referendum will be decisively shaped not only by the participation of students in our university and colleges but also by the institutional positions of all university staff and management. The institutional attitude of universities towards the Brexit referendum is therefore highly relevant to how the June23, 2016 vote will unfold - and this for two reasons: first, given the very short timeframe from the moment David Cameron announced the renegotiated terms of UK membership in the EU on February 20, 2016 and the date of the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016 - timeframe that roughly coincides with universities’ spring term - their campuses, lecture rooms, clubs and associations constitute critical venues where issues on both sides of the argument can be discussed and debated openly and publicly, informed by facts and rational arguments. Universities UK - the representative organisation for all UK’s universities – makes the powerful argument that university managers should do everything in their power to promote and facilitate such discussions among their students and staff even if they do not wish to directly take sides in the debate itself.
Universities UK has recognised that UK membership of the European Union is of the outmost importance for Britain in general and for British students in particular and is conducting a “Universities for Europe” Campaign. Universities UK’s president, Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent, launched this campaign with a speech delivered at University College, London on July 27, 2015 where she stated that “Universities must stand up and be counted. We should be a powerful and positive voice on the benefits of EU membership.”
As Universities for Europe’s website states,
“The Universities for Europe campaign, led by Universities UK, will put universities at the centre of the European Union referendum debate. It will show the value of EU membership to our universities and why this matters to British people, economy and society.”
In addition, it makes clear that:
“Universities want to inspire the debate on Europe and ensure that it is informed and strengthened by evidence. Through the Universities for Europe campaign universities want to ensure an evidence-based debate where the facts are considered and a wide range of opinions are heard and discussed. While Universities UK has taken a clear and strong pro-European position this will not stop universities hosting open debates on the pros and cons of the Europe. In fact Universities UK is actively encouraging universities to organise and host debates. We want university campuses to be places for debate and our academics to provide academic expertise to all sides. University students will be encouraged to debate, to register to vote, and to exercise their right to have a say on the day. There are of course a variety of views on EU membership across the British public and ultimately the decision on whether the UK remains in the European Union will be made by the voters. Universities want to inform and strengthen the national debate before the country heads to the polling stations.”
Not all UK universities managers seem to agree with the approach taken by Universities UK or follow its advice. For example Stronger United contacted Professor Richard Williams, Principal and Vice Chancellor of Herriot Watt University in Edinburgh and offered to visit the university campus for a meeting with students and staff to discuss the upcoming Brexit referendum and spearhead exactly the type of discussions and debates recommended by Universities UK and its campaign, Universities for Europe. In reply received a letter from the secretary of the University, Mary Dalton on behalf of Professor Williams who had asked her to answer us on his behalf in the following terms:
“Harriet Watt University in line with most other universities maintains a strictly neutral political position. As a result we do not endorse or support either viewpoint regarding the UK referendum on membership of the European Union. We appreciate your offer of a discussion about this topic but feel we must decline in order to maintain our politically neutral position.”
Positions such as that taken by Harriet Watt university do nothing to stimulate the democratic process of factual information, open discussion and deliberative debates of critical issues relating to our common future in Britain and in Europe. One can of course argue that universities and other educational institutions should remain themselves neutral with regards to one or the other option of the Brexit Referendum options - although clearly in this case their representative organization, Universities UK, chose to take a clear and principled position in favor of Britain's continued membership in the EU; but even in such a situation extending the concept of ‘neutrality’ to actually refusing to engage with academics and students in such deliberations and making university facilities available for similar events represents a very narrow and limiting approach from educational institutions whose primary purpose is the formation of young people as future responsible and engaged citizens of our country.
At Stronger United we fervently hope that as the Brexit campaign progresses and intensifies, and as we continue our 2016 Marchathon across the country other colleges’ and universities’ principals and managers will adopt different positions from those voices by Principal Williams and others who take similarly neutral positions on the critical issue of UK membership in the EU. The University of Coventry provides such a forward-looking example. A recent case study published on the website of the Confederation of British Industry discussing this university’s growth in both size and reputation in recent years stated as follows:
“Part of this growth is due to the extensive range of partnerships and collaborations the University has developed with the support of EU funds. Over the last 3 years, we have delivered on over 120 contracts awarded by the European Commission, the vast majority of which have been multi-partner collaborations. The support from the EU for these projects has totalled £35million and has involved every Faculty and Institution within the University. The research fields have varied from human trafficking to food safety, materials engineering to digital media.”
The article concluded by asserting that:
“We believe the EU’s support for the University and its business programmes is a contributing factor to Coventry ranking first for the number of consultancy contracts it completes for SMEs (HEBCI Survey 2011) and its feature in the Times Higher World University Rankings top 200 most outward-looking institutions (THE 2016)… Through the benefits of funding, international collaboration and the partnerships they create, Coventry University is closely linked with the European Union, and it has helped it grow.”