Universities look to be (slowly) suspending CBI membership

A string of appalling allegations against the business group has seen members heading for the door

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

One revelation after another in recent weeks has led to the resignation of the Confederation of British Industry’s director and a pause in all policy and membership activity – it’s likely to only get worse with the publication of investigations in the next few days.

Institutions including University of York, Sheffield Hallam University, and The University of Sunderland put out statements saying they had suspended or resigned their memberships last Friday afternoon – others may have done so without publicly commenting. But there was certainly a sense on Friday afternoon that higher education institutions were moving more slowly than the glut of businesses announcing cancellations, such as Unilever, Virgin Media, NatWest, John Lewis, Tesco, and many more.

The costs and benefits of belonging to the CBI have always been a balancing act for universities. Being required to sign up for individual membership – at great expense – was a particular bugbear. And this isn’t the first time that universities have stepped away from the CBI – 2014 saw various institutions in Scotland depart after the group came out against Scottish independence in the referendum campaign, antagonising providers that wanted to maintain strict neutrality.

But the CBI’s promise of influence at the highest levels of government was previously seen as hard to turn down. The confederation has always prided itself on facilitating and maintaining contact with ministers and legislators – so for example, business representative groups including the Federation of Small Businesses, Make UK, CBI, and the Institute of Directors got face time with Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt the Friday before the autumn statement, to make the case for their members’ concerns. Along with the British Chambers of Commerce, these groups are sometimes referred to as the “big five” when it comes to lobbying influence.

We have seen in the past universities or mission groups co-signing letters with the CBI (or other, less scandal-hit business groups, of course) calling on the government to take some particular action – again, lending clout to universities keen to emphasise their economic value to the country.

Aside from the tantalising promise of shaping the government’s agenda, the CBI also offers its members peer networking opportunities and specialist services around business planning and insight. All in all, it’s not cheap – while the cost of membership is predictably kept pretty confidential, the Guardian suggested that a large business can expect to pay £90,000 a year (and that an added complication for those considering quitting is that annual fees are often paid in January).

There’s already reported to be a new group hoping to take up the CBI mantle – “BizUK”, anyone? – on the expectation that revelations of an appalling culture with the group prove fatal. Universities will need to weigh up the cost of associating with a new body to the possible value in influence that it will offer – as well as its commitments on organisational culture.

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