The Charity Commission’s “stern” warning against campaigning in the European Union referendum means that universities must be “super-careful” on Brexit, although Universities UK has discussed whether to back a second referendum, according to Cardiff University’s vice-chancellor.
Colin Riordan made the comments during a UUK conference on Brexit in London on 29 November.
The Charity Commission warned UK charities in March 2016 about the risks of campaigning in the referendum. Charities in receipt of EU funds should not campaign for a vote to stay in the EU solely because of potential losses in income, it warned.
UUK launched “Universities for Europe” during the referendum campaign, highlighting the benefits of EU membership for universities.
During questions following the opening session and address by Professor Riordan, one audience member said that he was “uncomfortable with [Professor Riordan’s] level of neutrality about Brexit, because I think there’s a slam-dunk case that it’s nuts”.
The audience member said that he wanted “the university sector to be much more outspoken in explaining that to the population”.
Professor Riordan replied: “There’s a very good reason why I can’t go out there and start arguing in very political ways.
“Universities in this country, many of us anyway, are charities. We got pretty stern advice from the Charity Commission during the Brexit campaign not to argue, as universities, as charities, in favour of a political aim, which you’re not allowed to do.
“So we have to be super-careful how we tread. I have expressed views on this publicly, but I have to make absolutely clear that it’s a personal view, that the university [Cardiff] does not have a line on this.
“Especially now, when it’s not absolutely clear, for instance, whether a second referendum would be good for universities or not. It might be, it might not; it depends what happens.”
Professor Riordan said that he had argued “very strongly that Brexit would be a bad outcome for universities”. This “wasn’t just about money” and another key factor was about how “doing research in a pool of 500 million people to draw from is going to give you more quality and talent available”, he added.
Professor Riordan continued: “It has been debated within UUK as to whether we should be arguing for a second referendum. But unless you can show that would definitely benefit universities, it’s a very difficult thing to do.”
A Charity Commission spokeswoman said: “Campaigning and political activity can be a legitimate and valuable activity for charities to undertake, but they must do so in line with the law. They must stress their independence and can only undertake this activity in line with their charitable activities.”
The spokeswoman highlighted the Charity Commission’s CC9 guidance “on how charities can undertake campaigning in line with the law”.
She added: “During the EU referendum campaign we provided extra guidance, on the request of charities, to help trustees ensure that they could comply with charity law during this period.”
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of UUK, outlined the organisation’s Brexit priorities during a speech at the conference. He said that there should be a “comprehensive international education strategy…to grow the numbers of international students,” which “should include improvements to post-study work visas”.
There must also be “an immigration system that enables students to enter the UK to study with minimal barriers, and universities to recruit talented staff with minimal bureaucracy”.
The current visa system for non-EU nationals was “not suitable for [European Economic Area] nationals post-Brexit”, Mr Jarvis said. “It would make it much harder for UK universities to attract talented European staff and students who contribute so much to our campus communities, our research, our teaching and our economy.”
He added that it was a “crucial time” on this front, with a White Paper on the government’s proposed post-Brexit immigration regime expected soon.