Universities UK has long been accused of not fighting strongly enough for the interests of universities. Beset by internal differences and having to please all factions, it has rather let the so-called university mission groups – not least the Russell Group – lobby loudly instead. Yet when it does put its head above the parapet, as it has with a forceful campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union ahead of an upcoming referendum on membership, it gets its head shot off.
In an article for The Conversation, Anand Menon from King’s College London has written that the EU referendum is too politically contentious and finely balanced to warrant such a bold and assertive campaign by UUK on the benefits to universities of staying in. He argues that such a stance by the universities’ lead membership body is likely to stifle genuine debate in the institutions by those who are not vice-chancellors. He even hints that academic freedom is being compromised.
Menon makes a strong case where he indicates that the arguments for and against Brexit are finely balanced – more so than the UUK position implies. There is every chance that funding for research can be negotiated back in by post-Brexit negotiations.
If eurozone countries become more fiscally and politically integrated as a means of overcoming their recent travails, effective power, including over EU budgets, may shift to this core group of countries. Britain could stay in the EU but find its interests compromised, including over research funding decisions, because political power has moved firmly to the eurozone countries – and the UK will never join this currency union.
Entitled to make its voice heard
But UUK is entitled to stand up for what it perceives as the interests of universities, if that is what its member institutions feel. If this means backing a Yes vote to stay in, then that is what it should argue for. Its primary purpose is as a lobby group – its stances are particular and maybe even partisan – and it has no real remit to argue for a national interest.
The national interest presumably arises from the interplay of many competing groups of advocates. If UUK elides the sector’s interests with the national interest, as Menon argues, it is no different from virtually every other such group with a stake in the referendum’s outcome.
Yet there are questions to be raised by both the UUK stance and Menon’s critique.
Who does the UUK feel it is responsible to? When I was a vice-chancellor, the representative body was called the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. Of course, we all thought we really represented our institutions as an entity, despite the activities and preferences of individual councils, university boards of governors, trade unions, students and so on. But the title of the organisation provided at least some distance from such grandiosity.
Now, as UUK, does the group feel that it is speaking on behalf of all universities or just their chief executives? If the former, how do we know, and how can they prove this? If so, fine – keep asserting against Brexit. If not, perhaps the Council of University Chairs – whose members are the chairs of university governing bodies – and the National Union of Students will stand up with their own arguments for or against.
If UUK’s membership wants it to represent university vice-chancellors on this issue, then it should do so. However, the force of its claims become a little more diluted if it cannot support its stance with evidence of wider support throughout universities.
Academics won’t be silenced on EU issue
Can it really be true that academics and others sheltering in our universities are going to feel constrained by what UUK argues? It has never happened before and will not this time, either. Everybody with an opinion on Brexit will have the opportunity to have a say, and when it is said, most will not be thinking of UUK.
So we can welcome UUK’s “Universities for Europe” campaign as a contribution to a debate that is contestable and inevitably partial. Perhaps we should be grateful that it is raising its voice with more vehemence on what it believes to be in the interests of universities than it has before – including over public expenditure cuts to university teaching budgets.
If others do not agree with its stance – not its actions – then they are free to say so. Rest assured, nobody in the institutions will feel in the least intimidated by the UUK campaign – as the upcoming cacophony over the referendum will undoubtedly reveal.