Universities should remain impartial in any future Brexit referendum campaign, because their lobbying in the run-up to the last vote alienated institutions from the general public, according to a leading pollster.
Giving the inaugural annual Times Higher Education lecture at THE Live, John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, argued that, because universities receive taxpayer funding and have charitable status, they should remain impartial, as they do during general election campaigns and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
“By campaigning for Remain, universities appeared out of touch with the taxpayer,” said Professor Curtice, who has led the team of experts crunching UK election exit poll data since 1992.
Emphasising how badly Brexit would affect universities and their funding made it look as if their view was based purely on self-interest, he added. As the Brexit debate rumbles on, universities as a group should “keep out” of taking political sides, he said.
Professor Curtice said that universities should simply offer up their experts to comment on issues in the debate, such as trade agreements or economics, when they are needed. Universities as a group should only provide opinions on issues that are relevant to them, such as Horizon Europe and Erasmus+, he said.
The higher education sector will now have to think harder about how best to negotiate a political world in which they appear to have “skin in the game”, Professor Curtice said. “Their intervention in politics compromised their staff’s ability to act as a source of policy expertise,” he said.
“Here is an issue [on which] those within universities and their alumni have a very different view to the other educational groups in society,” he said, but it is important that academics understand the views of those outside their bubble.
“You need to realise how limited your worldview is…[academics should] get connected with those less well-off,” he said. He advised academics to volunteer at a soup kitchen, write for The Sun or attend a Ukip conference to get to understand those who do not share their worldview.
“It’s important to understand the reasoning of those who do not agree with you. Universities in particular should be good at that,” Professor Curtice said.