THREE of Scotland’s leading universities have quit business organisation the CBI as the row escalates over its formal support for the No campaign in the referendum.
The universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen say they are pulling out because they must be seen to have a “strictly neutral position” on the constitutional debate. The move follows the CBI registering as a formal supporter of the No campaign last Friday.
Both Dundee and Glasgow Caledonian Universities are to consider their membership of the body later this week.
And Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University (RGU) has also expressed its disapproval at the decision, but has decided to remain a CBI member.
The head of the CBI, John Cridland, yesterday expressed “considerable regret” at the withdrawal of a growing number of members from the organisation after the lobby group’s controversial decision.
He insisted the decision was taken for “compliance reasons” so that events the CBI stages – such as public dinners featuring speakers opposing independence – did not fall foul of strict electoral rules which could see such events deemed to be a type of campaign spending.
Broadcaster STV, as well as government agencies Scottish Enterprise and VisitScotland, have already announced they will leave the CBI, insisting its anti-independence stance is at odds with their own neutral position.
Edinburgh and Glasgow are the biggest universities in Scotland with about 50,000 students between them.
Last night a University of Edinburgh spokesman said the institution hosts debate from “all sides in the discussion around Scottish independence”.
But he added: “We have a strictly neutral position on the issue. We have therefore withdrawn from membership of CBI Scotland while they are officially backing one side in that debate.”
And a spokesman for the University of Glasgow said: “We have carefully considered the decision of CBI Scotland to register with the Electoral Commission and decided that in order to maintain our impartiality we must resign our membership forthwith.”
A spokeswoman for Aberdeen University said officials had quit the CBI because it does not take a position in independence.
“The University of Aberdeen feels it is inappropriate to continue our membership of this body,” she said.
The universities were facing claims from pro-independence supporters that a slice of income from their student fees would effectively be funding the No campaign through their CBI membership costs.
An RGU spokesman said the purpose of the university’s membership of the CBI is to assist in developing links with potential business partners and that, as a result, the institution had opted not to quit.
He said: “The university is strictly neutral in relation to the independence referendum, and does not approve of the CBI statement. However, we are not in the CBI in order to address Scottish independence.”
Mr Cridland said the decision did not represent any wish for the organisation to campaign to influence voters’ opinions ahead of September’s referendum.
But the Scottish Government says the change makes the CBI membership of its agencies “clearly inappropriate”.
The Balhousie Care Group and energy company Aquamarine Power, both members of the pro-independence Business for Scotland body, have also resigned from the CBI.
Mr Cridland said: “We were advised that we needed to comply with the Electoral Commission’s rules because we have a position on the issues.
“I regret any CBI member leaving. That is a matter of considerable regret to me as chief executive. But I respect the fact that there are a variety of views.
“Nothing changed this weekend about the CBI’s position on the issue. All that changed is that for compliance reasons, we decided that we needed to register to be on the right side of those regulations.”
It emerged on Friday that CBI Scotland, which represents many businesses across the country, had registered with the Electoral Commission, meaning it can spend more than £10,000 on campaigning during the referendum period.
Registering as a campaigner also gives access to the electoral register and the right for representatives to attend postal vote opening sessions, polling stations and the counting of votes.
After the move was announced, the confederation faced fierce criticism that its position did not accurately reflect its members’ views and that officials had failed to consult them before formally registering to campaign for the Union.
But Mr Cridland added: “The members of the CBI want the CBI to have a view, and that view is that it is a matter for the Scottish voter.
“We are not trying to campaign to influence the Scottish voter but we are a business organisation and on the business issues – jobs in Scotland, growth in Scotland, living standards in Scotland – we have a view.
“We don’t think the economic case for independence has been made and we think the economy in Scotland and the economy of the United Kingdom is stronger together.
“We are not taking actions in an election but we do have a point of view.”
But Balhousie chairman Tony Banks said CBI took the decision without consulting its members and has challenged the organisation to produce evidence that it has followed due democratic process.
Mr Banks, who chairs Business For Scotland but insists his business is “neutral” in the independence debate, has predicted more walkouts in the days ahead.
“The CBI declaring for the No campaign has put us all in an untenable position,” he added.
“To maintain our neutrality we have to resign from the organisation.”
He added: “They believe they have a mandate from the council of CBI Scotland but I have spoken to council members who cannot remember this being discussed or voted upon.
“I would actually challenge the CBI to produce minutes and evidence of the fact that they have gone through a democratic process to come to this decision.
“Businesses are now taking their time and reflecting on this decision, and when business is back to normal on Tuesday I’m sure we’re going to see a number of other resignations from CBI Scotland.”
The CBI is the UK’s premier business lobbying organisation, which it says was set up to provide a voice for employers at a national and international level.