By Rob Cuthbert
The referendum result shocked the universities, going against all the expectations that ‘Remain’ would triumph and that the status quo would be preserved. The campaign had become increasingly frenetic as the date for the referendum approached, with claims about the consequences for ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ ever more inflated. But even on the day of the vote no-one, least of all the opinion pollsters, had really expected that ‘Leave’ would win. It was only as voters left polling stations across the country’s campuses that the realisation dawned, with exit polls immediately showing unexpectedly high votes for ‘Leave’, especially in crucial constituencies like Sheffield. As the results came in it was clear that Sunderland, one of the earliest to report a ‘Leave’ majority, had established a pattern that would be replicated everywhere except in parts of London and a few other cities.
It had all seemed so different only a year earlier. Among the mass of ordinary university staff there had long been some dissatisfaction that the system worked mainly to preserve the upper echelons in the comfort to which they had been accustomed. Universities UK was used to batting these concerns aside, on the grounds that plainly the advantages of the single HE market outweighed any other consideration. At first the small group of academics seeking more independence had been easy to dismiss as ‘fruitcakes and loonies’, even when they became organised in the Universities Claiming Independence Programme (UCIP). But support for the idea of independence grew – even, shockingly, among some of the proper universities. More people started to think that the universities where – after all – most of the people worked and studied might be better off outside a unified university sector, rather than paying most of the price for a system which seemed mainly to benefit the ‘leading universities’. Their numbers swelled as the 1994 group collapsed, dividing between defectors to the Russell Group and those refusing to pay the steep entry fees, or denied entry as not proper enough. The media looked for an easy handle for those disaffected with the UUK and started calling them Exists for Universities in Russell-Group Only Sceptics (Eurosceptics).
The Eurosceptics complained that the government of UUK was undemocratic, and deals affecting all universities were done in the inaccessible recesses of London clubs from which most vice-chancellors were excluded. Defenders of the status quo proclaimed the virtues of a unified system which could expand student enrolment from the single market and attract lots of low-paid staff from elsewhere to keep the country’s universities globally competitive. They pointed to the history of fringe institutions from poorer places desperately seeking membership of UUK, with colleges still queuing to meet the conditions for entry. They reminded their members that even the poorest institutions could send their representatives to UUK with pay and expenses packages worth £200-300,000 or more. Such figures were of course justified by UUK on the grounds that all institutions needed to compete for the best staff in the market. Competitiveness also naturally required keeping pay as low as possible for all the university staff who struggled to maintain a teaching and research lifestyle. But, in the areas which had been left behind, the complaint was less about low pay, more about the burden of regulation which seemed to flow endlessly from the top in quality control and key indicator sets. The single market had turned all the learners into customers.
When even some of the normally docile and compliant vice-chancellors changed allegiance and went over to UCIP, the UUK administration decided it had to resolve the issue once and for all, and promised to call a referendum with a simple question: do you think that all universities should stay in a single system, governed from the Athenaeum?
Opinion polls at first suggested a majority for ‘Remain’. As the campaign developed the rhetoric of the ‘Remainers’ became increasingly hysterical, especially about how much the ‘Leave’ side was telling lies to mislead the unthinking and ignorant masses who only had their own experience to go on. UUK told universities that to leave the single system would expose them to the same fate as FE colleges, which had already suffered funding cuts unthinkable to the refined sensibilities of HE and would do anything to get their money back. The media dubbed this Project FEAR (FE Are Rapacious). The polls shifted and it became clear the vote could go either way. UUK said that the expanding student enrolment economy would be destroyed overnight, that the UK’s HE credit rating would be permanently downgraded, security on campuses would break down, and a vote to Leave would mean the immediate emergency imposition of massive emergency fee increases, salary cuts and job losses – not one word of a lie. Leavers said the subscriptions to UUK would be better spent on student health and welfare in the institutions, and universities should take back control of their own affairs, but Remainers pointed out that UUK subscriptions were actually not as large as people thought, and in any case the end of civilisation as we know it would mean much greater losses for all. Some Leavers said that uncontrolled student enrolment would swamp the poorer institutions and drive down educational standards, leaving the richer areas relatively unaffected. ‘Remain’ campaigners took to the campuses and sought to persuade ‘Leave’ voters to change their allegiance by insulting their intelligence, telling them that they had not thought it through and they were racist isolationists: strangely, these arguments did little to help. As the day of the vote approached both sides resorted to shrieking ‘Liars’ and reasoned debate left the stage, a situation familiar to anyone who has sat through an Academic Board debate about car parking.
As the votes were counted UUK was forced to face the unthinkable: ‘Leave’ had triumphed. There had not been a plan B, but various groups of ‘Remainers’ cobbled together a range of desperate ideas. First was the rubbishing of the ‘Leave’ voters, as too old to care about the future, too poor, and too ignorant. The slightly more refined but no less offensive line was that ‘Leavers’ had not understood the arguments because they had been lied to in the campaign. Many ‘Remainers’ were outraged at the thought that anyone should disagree with their evidently superior understanding of the situation, and simply argued that the referendum should be rerun until the people gave the right answer. Then the serious logic-chopping began, with constitutionalists arguing that the vote was not valid until UUK had endorsed it in a full meeting. As it became clear that most vice-chancellors would not be willing so obviously to oppose the wishes of their constituents, the argument shifted to the hopefully arcane complexities of the implications of the vote. It was said that UUK could only endorse ‘Leave’ if it spelt out the implications and had another vote involving the whole university population. Events forestalled these half-baked ideas; after much mayhem among the previous leadership a sensible tendency emerged, recognising that perhaps the best thing to do was to accept the will of the people, freely expressed.
Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England, Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics firstname.lastname@example.org, and Chair, Improving Dispute Resolution Advisory Service www.idras.ac.uk