Ben Howlett is MP for Bath and a Member of the Women & Equalities Select Committee.
The referendum campaigns are now come in full swing in the wake of the Prime Minister’s deal with the European Union. Many opinion polls show a tight race, so every opportunity to promote staying in the EU must be grasped – which includes securing the vital 18-24 year old demographic.
Students currently look supportive of staying in. A recent survey carried out by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) found that of 1,000 full time undergraduate students, 70 per cent would vote to stay within the EU if a referendum were held tomorrow. With 6.8 million 18-24 year olds in the UK, the Remain campaign must turn out this vital demographic of votes at the referendum to succeed.
Engagement with the referendum, however, was seemingly less enthusiastic. 41 per cent of students said they have followed the debate ‘not very closely’, with just under a fifth (19 per cent) saying they have followed them ‘not closely at all’.
This apathy is even more concerning when considering the historic low-turnout of younger age groups. According to the British Electoral Study, 18-24 year olds have turned out less then every other age group since the 1970s. It is vital for the Remain campaign to enthuse the UK’s two million students to get to the polling booths on referendum day.
Student life would certainly be very different were Britain to be outside the EU. Teaching and research opportunities would suffer as Universities UK estimate that 14 per cent of academic staff come from EU member states, while Brussels provides £1 billion of research funding annually.
Students might also have to say goodbye to 125,000 of their EU friends studying in the UK, alongside the £2.2 billion in annual revenue they generate for British universities. Going off to study in EU countries could also come under jeopardy. Leaving the EU would put Britain’s participation in the Erasmus scheme in doubt – the EU university exchange programme that has seen more than 200,000 students and 20,000 academics take part since 1987.
Future employment prospects are always important, particularly for nervous soon-to-be graduates. YouthSight’s analysis of the student vote at the last general election showed that employment and the cost of living were at the top of their concerns.
Building on the Prime Minister’s reforms, the Remain Campaign needs to run a positive campaign to students – one that extols the benefits to their education and future careers of remaining within the European Union. For all its red tape, the EU is often a driving force for opening markets, with EU reforms bringing about, for example, the abolition of mobile phone roaming charges by 2017. Not only will the future prospects of students be affected by Brexit; their future quality of life will be altered. The issue may seem insignificant, however, to a generation whose lives are so often based around their smart phone, but they will feel the benefit of the same charges across the EU.
The Leave campaigns have failed to answer how students would be protected from a Brexit. I do hope older generations will consider the negative impact that leaving the EU would have on current students and those who will go to university for years to come. We must think of future consequences of our decision – not simply immediate risks.
Students may seem set on voting to stay in, but this support cannot be taken for granted. The current debate has left a demographic that is all too often unenthused and reluctant to turn out. This must be addressed by the Remain campaign through a positive message on the importance of the EU for university education and jobs. In it might lie the key to victory in the referendum.