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Students and the EU: The key arguments affecting young people in the in/out debate

26th May 2016

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Britain is about to vote in a ‘once-in-a-generation’ referendum that will decide the future of our membership of the European Union. But people aged 18 to 24 are traditionally the least likely to pop a ballot paper in the box. In the general election last year, just 52% voted.

So if you’re yet to engage in the debate, unsure of which way to vote or in need of a bit of persuasion to actually turn up, then look no further. We’ve spoken to two key young voices about the referendum – Tom Harwood, who wants us to go, and Megan Dunn, who thinks we should stay.

Tom Harwood, 19, chair of the Students for Britain campaign and a student at Durham University.

Tom Harwood of the Students for Britain campaign
Tom Harwood (Students for Britain)

Megan Dunn, 25, former NUS president and University of Aberdeen graduate.

Megan Dunn
Megan Dunn (NUS)

Why does the debate matter?

David Cameron and Boris Johnson
(Christopher Furlong/PA; Gareth Fuller/PA)

“For students and young people this is a massively important debate,” says Megan. “Lots of elections are defined in the UK by votes from people over the age of 50 and 60, but this is a debate that really will shape the future of the UK and the future of young people and students in the UK and I think that it’s really important that they get involved.”

For Tom, the debate matters because it’s an “issue that is very, very clouded”. “Not many people know that much about it [the EU], “he says.  “It’s something that affects all of our lives and it’s so pervasive in terms of UK policy.”

What positive impact does the EU have?

EU Flags
(Virginia Mayo/AP)

There aren’t any plus points, according to Tom. Even when pressed, the ‘out’ campaigner said: “I honestly can’t think of anything the European union does that is positive that we wouldn’t be able to achieve when we’re outside of it.”

But Megan believes students benefit from learning alongside Europeans: “Our education is shaped by a range of different perspectives, by different arguments. Part of our education is being challenged by ideas that aren’t familiar to you and I think that that element of challenge is really aided by having students sitting around you from all around the EU who can talk about their different perspectives.”

Will students still be able to study abroad?

(Chris Radburn/PA)

It goes without saying: the Erasmus scheme provides fantastic opportunities for linguists. But will it go if we go? No, says Tom: “It’s a programme that can be opted in by loads of countries. Not only are Turkey, Iceland and Switzerland all full members, but also countries like Canada and Israel participate in the Erasmus Plus programme.”

Megan is less optimistic: “The Erasmus scheme is hugely beneficial to students and I think if we left the EU it would be lots harder for people to have those experiences and to have those challenges.

“The amount of red tape that you would have to go through would be much harder.”

How will jobs be affected?

A tattered EU flag
(Steve Parsons/PA)

The ability to travel freely and work abroad across the EU attracts many graduates, but workplace laws could be affected too if we left, according to Megan.

“There’s an economic argument that regularly gets made around businesses in the UK if the UK left the EU, but more than that I think it’s about things like laws that protect you against discrimination in the work place.

“I think that this Government has already indicated that they don’t want these things to survive.”

The issue for Tom surrounds companies staying in the UK. He believes that despite the threats, companies will remain on British soil. “I don’t think people believe that companies are going to leave, because the same companies that are coming out now saying ‘Oh the world’s going to end if we leave the EU’ are the same ones that said: ‘The world’s going to end and we’re going to leave the UK if we don’t join the euro’. And they’re still here now.”

What about migration?

The UK border at Heathrow
(Steve Parsons/PA)

Tom believes that it is a “very 19th-century view to think the only opportunities are in Europe”. He says we currently “discriminate hugely” against non-EU countries, making it “really hard” for skilled migrants to come to Britain from the likes of Australia and India.

“We’re discriminating in favour of EU countries so if we leave we’ll be able to have a fair migration policy where of course we can live and work in other places.”

“We’re not going to suddenly pull up any kind of drawbridge, in fact we’ll become a much more open and dynamic economy when we leave.”

But Megan thinks the Government have shown no intention of opening borders.

“What we have seen is that this Government isn’t interested in opening the doors for the rest of the world, simply to shutting them, and I think that being in the EU protects EU students from that and ensures that they have a place in our higher education system.”

Are there any benefits to the opposition campaign?

Campaign material from Students for Britain
Campaign material (Students for Britain)

Megan doesn’t see there being a benefit to the ‘out’ campaign for students: “I don’t think that shutting our doors to the rest of the world and pretending that it isn’t there is going to help students.”

Tom, meanwhile, can’t find a thread of support for the ‘in’ campaign: “I honestly don’t really understand how people can say that uniquely these 28 countries, that happen to be in Europe and in this political institution called the EU, they’re not able to go off on themselves.”

He “simply doesn’t buy” that it would be “Armageddon” if Britain voted to leave.

How will students vote?

Students for Britain campaigners in Durham City
Students for Britain campaigners in Durham City (Students for Britain)

Tom thinks that student apathy is a serious concern, and has come against problems when campaigning. “The student population is so apathetic about this issue – no one cares at all,” he says.

But lots of students are being swayed by the ‘out’ campaign, he says. “When you get people into a conversation they are really open and perceptive to the arguments… When you actually engage with the issues, and really positive internationalist issues, people are so receptive and actually so many people have gone from wavering on not knowing much about it to being leave supporters, or people who were ‘why on earth would I even think about leaving’ are now waverers.”

Megan, however, believes that “seven in 10 students are intending to vote to stay in the EU”, and despite the classic young-voter-apathy, believes that “students recognise that this is a once-in-a-generation vote, that the consequences are to a large extent irreversible and that it is more important than ever that they use their vote to determine their futures”.

The EU referendum will be held on Thursday, June 23. Any British, Irish or Commonwealth citizen over the age of 18, and British nationals living abroad who have been on the electoral register here in the last 15 years, can vote.

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