With this week’s announcement in Parliament that ministers would be free to campaign for whichever outcome they personally favour, the Prime Minster fired the starting pistol for an EU referendum race that will dominate this year’s politics (and maybe some of next year’s too).
Unlike some of his ministers, universities have already decided their own preference – that they will campaign for a ‘Remain’ vote.
In that respect, they’re well ahead of most of the voting public. Analysis from non-partisan thinktank British Future, published this week in a new pamphlet How (not) to talk about Europe, finds that up to two-thirds of the public is yet to decide for certain which way (or indeed whether) they will vote in the big decision that faces Britain.
With only around a fifth of people certain which way they will vote, that presents universities with a similar challenge to other advocates in the referendum, whether for ‘In’ or for ‘Out’ – how to reach and persuade those undecided voters who will determine the referendum result.
That challenge is made even tougher for both sides by the fact that the people doing the advocacy – in the case of universities, most likely senior administrators, academics and students themselves – may not share the same way of thinking as the people they need to persuade. If Europhiles are from Mars and Eurosceptics are from Venus, most average voters are from planet Earth: many of them will be more concerned about who’s going to win the Bake-Off than who’ll come out top in the EU referendum. The passionate arguments from committed advocates on both sides – whether they’re a UKIP counsellor campaigning for ‘Out’ or a university professor advocating an ‘In’ vote – may sound rather alien to an undecided voter who is not convinced that a vote either way will have a big impact on their everyday life.
So what role could universities play? Like voices in the business community, universities will be most effective when speaking from their own locus of experience and credibility – explaining what impact a decision either way could have on universities, learning and research. In that respect, Vice Chancellors will be a trusted voice, particularly if they’re not seen to be just defending their own interests or telling voters what to do, but rather setting out their own assessment of the potential impacts of the referendum result. That could be particularly true in regions like East Anglia and the South West where there may not be many other voices with significant regional profile speaking up on their side of the argument.
Like all advocates in the referendum campaign, universities should think carefully about who they are seeking to reach, the arguments they use and the messengers who voice them. While academics and student supporters may not convince schoolgate mum in Stoke-on-Trent to agree with them, their arguments may have more resonance on campus. Non-academic support staff may have more traction with a broader, non-graduate audience, particularly their own friends and family.
Finally, and importantly, universities should remember their civic role as centres of discussion and debate – as a place where ideas can be discussed openly. In this respect, universities could play an important and non-partisan role in ensuring that we have a referendum that is good for our politics and for democratic engagement. They should platform voices from both sides and encourage not just students but also their non-graduate neighbours in university towns to engage in the debate, to consider the pros and cons for both sides and then use their vote accordingly.
British Future is an independent charity and doesn’t presume to suggest which way people vote in the referendum. We do, however, think that they should vote – whichever side they choose. The choice of whether Britain remains in the EU is a big decision and should be determined by a big referendum, one that engages as many people as possible. That gives greater credibility to whatever decision we come to as a country. But it could also help to re-engage people right across the UK in a politics that has been disregarded by many as distant, elitist and out-of-touch with the everyday concerns of voters. The independence referendum in Scotland helped make politics matter to people again, and the referendum on EU membership could have a similar effect for the whole UK. Whatever the result, that would be a referendum that’s good for Britain – and one in which universities could play an important role.