University to ‘remain neutral’ ahead of EU referendum

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Nathan Stilwell
News Editor

The University of Glasgow will remain neutral in the upcoming referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union, while encouraging staff and students to speak on both sides of the debate.

The University Court discussed the issue at a meeting on the 24th of June, where a politically neutral stance was agreed. The University plans to invite speakers on both sides of the debate and will encourage students and staff to speak out both for and against Britain’s continued membership of the 28-member union. However, given the significant number of staff and students from elsewhere in Europe, as well as the importance of research funding from the EU, the principal and other members of the senior management group are likely to defend the University’s interests in research and teaching.

Mark Furse, professor of competition law and policy at the University, who raised the issue at a Council of Senate meeting, told the Glasgow Guardian: “I asked my question because I was concerned that the University as a body, as opposed to individuals working in it, would sacrifice its interest in the UK’s continued membership of the EU to the principle of political neutrality.”

He added:  “At the minimum I would like to see the University hosting a series of themed lectures on the EU and the UK’s relationship to it. Even better I would like to see the University taking such sessions into community public spaces. I accept that the use of the term ‘facts’ is not as straightforward as it may appear, and that facts are open to interpretation, but let us at least try and clarify the bedrock of truth. If the referendum is in fact a fig-leaf for the exercise of xenophobia let’s at least be clear about this.”

“[…] the University should engage in advocacy to support this position – and here I mean the (I hesitate to use the term) corporate body, not simply senior members of the University speaking on their own behalf. […] To leave the EU would risk the impoverishment of this University intellectually and financially, and would be a disaster”

Another source who was present when the issue was discussed by the Council of Senate told the Glasgow Guardian: “The discussion at Senate was very much that the University has to defend its business interests, but it does not want to be seen as preempting David Cameron’s fantasy renegotiation by mindlessly supporting the EU. ”

The EU referendum, which will decide Britain’s future as a member state, is due to take place before the end of 2017. Sources close to the prime minister have reportedly been planning the referendum for as early as April 2016. Groups such as Universities UK and the Russell Group are likely to campaign strongly in favour of the UK remaining within a reformed EU on the basis that a ‘Brexit’ would harm the higher education sector in the UK.

A University of Glasgow spokesperson said: “Membership of the European Union brings many benefits to the university sector. This was debated and recognised when Court met on 24 June. At that meeting it was decided that whilst the University as an institution would not take a position on any in/out referendum, we would encourage colleagues to engage in the debate as was the case during last year’s referendum on Scottish Independence.

“Whilst it is hard to quantify the financial impact that withdrawal might have, it was also agreed that senior figures including the Principal should be able to make their views known on EU membership and the implications that any change might have on Glasgow in particular and HE more generally.”

The University Court accurately predicted that several of the groups and organisations of which the University is a member, are likely to lobby for a ‘remain’ vote. Last month, the Universities UK group, representing the heads of 133 British universities, launched the Universities for Europe campaign, which seeks to promote the benefits of UK’s continued membership of the European Union for research and education purposes. It argues that the research funding from Brussels, worth £1.2 billion a year, as well as the £2.2 billion and 19,000 jobs generated in the UK economy by the 125,000 EU students at British universities, has improved the standard of higher education in the UK and benefited the country as a whole.

The Russell Group has also highlighted the role that EU funding and freedom of movement has played in the improvements in the quality of research at UK universities. Universities Scotland, however, which remained neutral in last year’s independence referendum, is still consulting on the issue and will not state its position until later this month.

The possibility of the UK leaving the EU has caused concern for Glasgow students from elsewhere in the EU. Martina Di Folco, a politics and sociology student from Italy told the Glasgow Guardian that: “Brexit would put me in a difficult position, I don’t know whether I’d be allowed to finish my degree and then apply for a visa to re-enter the country or if I would be sent back home and apply for a visa from there.” Leaving the EU would  also mean that Glasgow students would be unable to participate in the ERASMUS programme, as well as limiting freedom to live, work and study elsewhere on the continent.