“Isn’t there something rather bogus about this event, rather unhealthy; even, dare I say it, un-academic?” Michael Crick, the Channel 4 News political correspondent, did not, as he sometimes does, get smacked over the head or body-checked by a press officer when he asked a question at the launch of Universities UK’s campaign on the benefits of EU membership today.
Despite Julia Goodfellow, the Universities UK president-elect and University of Kent vice-chancellor, failing to step down from the platform to deliver physical admonishment, it was still the liveliest moment of the event.
Crick’s argument was that UUK said they wanted “a debate”, so “why isn’t there any Eurosceptic voice on that platform?” It would be “more academic, more genuine to university life, if you stood above this debate and allowed a genuine debate…without running a campaign meeting,” he said.
Crick’s question was typical of some of the more hostile media and political reaction to UUK’s intervention today. He had a point on the pro-EU profile of the participants: Labour’s Chuka Umunna and the Conservatives’ Damian Green going alongside Goodfellow.
But UUK isn’t an academic body. It’s a lobbying organisation for British universities.
UUK will regard itself as having scored a big success today: an interview spot on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, plus the front-page of The Independent and coverage in nearly all the broadsheets. UUK has secured headlines on its well-rehearsed arguments on the benefits of EU membership to UK universities and the nation more broadly – in staff and student mobility, in research funding and international research collaboration – before the “no” campaign is running and able to fight back properly.
Ukip and its deputy leader, Paul Nuttall, a former lecturer at Liverpool Hope University, have been furiously tweeting about the supposed scandal of EU-funded Jean Monnet professorships at UK and other universities. You might have expected they would have some better ammunition lined up for UUK’s long-trailed intervention.
Umunna made some broad points about the “yes” campaign: that it should be led by a “non-politician” and be a “grassroots” campaign; that it should be “positive and optimistic”, which was the “lesson we should heed from Scotland”. He also predicted that the “no” campaign will “want this all to be about immigration”, given its “toxicity as an issue”.
Despite being shadow business secretary, Umunna normally shows little interest in universities, even though higher education is the biggest part of the budget in the department he shadows. As he started ranging off topic and talking about Germany’s demands for “excessive austerity” in the eurozone, it became clearer that he might be using the speech as an audition for the post of shadow foreign secretary, hence his sudden interest in universities.
Umunna responded to Crick by defending UUK. “If you want to effectively campaign and make an argument for what you believe to be in your sector’s best self-interest, then of course it makes sense to run a campaign,” he said. “I think there is something quite sinister in an attempt to muzzle any particular sector…in the context of this debate,” he added.
Goodfellow said the nation “deserved a debate” on the EU referendum, which, she said, was what UUK will deliver.
I thought the most notable thing about Green’s speech was the way he echoed (without credit) a section of a recent Times Higher Education feature on what Brexit could mean for UK higher education, when he talked about the EU-funded FORECEE project to develop a predictive test for women’s cancers led by Martin Widschwendter at University College London. But that, I realise, is just me.
Overall, today’s event and coverage showed that the UK’s universities can, when they put their minds to it, speak with one powerful voice and have a major media impact. Maybe they should try it on some of the other big issues facing universities.