Meet Some of The UK University Students Voting to Leave the EU
Young voters are more likely to want to Remain in the European Union than any other age group. But who are those who want out – and why? I spoke to a handful of students in the UK who believe in Vote Leave.
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The EU referendum is almost here, and all the stats on voter demographics have led you to believe that university students are fundamentally In. The NUS have publicly backed voting to remain, as have many lecturers and HE staff – yet there are still some students out there who disagree and will go against the majority of their peers this week to ensure that Britain leaves the European Union.
Groups have been set up, such as Students for Britain, which are made up of students looking to vote Leave – they also occasionally share referendum memes. Students for Britain currently has over 4,000 followers on Twitter and just under 2,000 likes on Facebook. There are also Leave campaign groups for specific universities across the UK.
Despite their swings, the polls ultimately show the referendum could go either way. However, research has shown that students are most likely to vote Remain, while also being the least likely demographic to actually vote at all. Whether or not young people turn out to vote could be pivotal in deciding the outcome of the referendum.
Multiple studies have predicted the impact Brexit could have on students and recent graduates. Research by mobile app Debut found that 81% of students will vote Remain, citing career concerns as a huge factor in their decision to do so – 4 out of 5 students surveyed said they believed Brexit would affect their job prospects. Meanwhile, Times Higher Education research found that many UK universities rely heavily on the EU for funding, whilst some courses, such as Education, Law and Philosophy receive a significant portion of their competitive grant research income from the EU.
In spite of all the warnings against leaving the EU – and the impact it could have on young people, in particular – there are some students determined to leave.
“In my view, the EU is undemocratic, perhaps even anti-democratic,” Jack Gevertz tells me, a third year Politics student at the University of York. The issue of democracy is something all the students I spoke to brought up. Jack continues on the subject of representation: “There are seven big institutions in the EU: from the European Commission to the Auditors. These are all run by men – which, for an organisation increasingly about social justice and opportunity – is not good enough in 2016.
“More importantly, none of them are elected.”
Students have always been vocal in their fight for democracy and progressive values; they have mobilised throughout history to campaign for a number of causes, and the NUS prides itself on uniting students to promote, defend and extend students’ rights. It’s no surprise that the EU’s democratic integrity is at the forefront of the concerns held by those wanting to leave.
Many of the students I spoke to are concerned with the power given to unelected officials – of which UK representatives make up a minority. Derya Khalilpour, a 19-year-old Biomedical Sciences student at UWE, who is also VP of the University’s Debating Society, says: “while there is a certain amount of diplomacy that goes on when introducing legislation, we still get damaging laws passed down like the common fisheries policy. Even when all the British MEPs vote against a motion, they are still defeated.”
David Browne, a postgrad student I spoke to at the University of Exeter, goes so far as to describe the EU as “fundamentally undemocratic.”
“Lots of students I speak to have this image of the EU as this progressive, tolerant, happy-clappy coming together.”
The issue of sovereignty also featured heavily in our discussions.
Loughborough University first year, Alex Mustoe, wants laws that affect British people to be voted for by British people. “If the British people want open door immigration from the EU, or limits on the fishing trade, or to put huge levies on African farming imports, then that is the democratic right of the government to do that,” he says. “However, we are currently being told this is going to happen by an EU of whom we vote a small proportion [of representatives] into. I believe this hugely outweighs any other argument.”
Everyone I spoke to was talking about the EU as dictatorial and anti-democratic. Completely focused on bureaucratic processes, there was no mention from any of the students about how Brexit would affect them personally. Blair Spowart, however, a recent Philosophy graduate from the University of Edinburgh, who is due to start a Master’s course at the University of Cambridge after the summer, did call out other students for their perception of the EU.
“Lots of students I speak to seem to have this image of the EU as this progressive, tolerant, happy-clappy coming together of the European peoples. I think this is delusional.
“It’s quite laughable, to my mind, that the anti-EU camp, instead of the EU’s supporters, are cast as anti-European,” he says, before pointing out that the past 300 years of European history show ordinary people overcoming the powers that once dictated to them. Blair claims the EU has undone this and it is therefore anti-European: “I’m voting leave precisely because I’m pro-European – that is, I’m on the side of ordinary Europeans, which means being against the institution that holds them in complete contempt.”
“It’s completely mind-boggling that students, of all people, seem to consider this dreadful institution a beacon of tolerance and progression,” Blair tells me.
Throughout the campaign, the Remain camp have been keen to mobilise students to vote.
Education Secretary Nicky Morgan argued in a speech on BBC Breakfast that young people would be more negatively impacted than any other group if the UK were to choose Brexit. She said, “it will be young people who suffer the most, left in limbo while we struggle to find and then negotiate an alternative model… If parents and grandparents vote to leave, they’ll be voting to gamble with their children and grandchildren’s future.” Remain advocates also suggest that 1 in 10 British jobs are generated by Britain’s membership to the European Union’s single market and that over 14, 500 students took part in the Erasmus scheme in 2012-13. Though, it’s worth noting that while Remain claim the Erasmus scheme will cease to exist should we leave, Vote Leave insist it will still be available. The truth is, nobody really knows.
On the benefits of EU membership, Jack Gevertz acknowledges workers’ rights, the ease of travel between EU countries and increased influence on global issues. However, he still believes the cons outweigh the pros.
What unites many of these students planning to vote Leave is the belief that life in the UK post-Brexit is unpredictable, but that things will work out better somehow.
Alex Mustoe tells me: “All predictions about what will happen are exactly that, predictions. No one knows what happens if we stay or if we leave, but given the two campaigns I think it is clear the best option is to leave.
“I do personally believe that we will be able to trade with lots of other countries still. I still believe we will have the workers we need, I believe life will continue nearly the same – just with more democratic accountability for our government.”
Julius Haswell, who is studying German at the University of Cambridge, concurs: “It has long been the aim of the EU to create a European state and while, in principle, it could be a good idea to bring nations together to combat world issues, it is fundamentally flawed in that it takes sovereignty away from nations. It means forevermore it won’t be a working system, unless it reforms drastically and comprehensively. As far as I can see, however, it will not reform.”
The students I spoke to had a lot to say about Remain’s campaigning, which David Browne describes as using “apocalyptic predictions,” regarding the implications of Brexit. He believes these tactics are disingenuous and insulting.
Jack Gevertz is also unconvinced by the opposing side. “Remain talk of reform… If Remain want to reform, then I want to know: What will you reform? When will you reform it? How do you plan to reform it? So far, all we’ve heard is the word ‘reform,’ but nothing else. And you can’t exactly accuse Brexit of having no plan when you haven’t got one either,” he argues.
There was a mutual sense that it’s better to walk into the unknown than to stick with the status quo; are they brave or reckless? Either way, I was keen to bring the discussion back to how students may be impacted. Why do so many young people want to remain, and how does this make those wanting out feel?
Derya Khalilpour tells me he thinks the students he has spoken to about the EU don’t understand how long-term the decision made in this referendum will be. “I hear cries of ‘I don’t want to be left on an island with the Tories,’ and think that it’s remarkable how short-sighted comments like these are.”
“For my friends at university, I feel like there are a few recognisable attitudes to the referendum,” he says, before criticising the other side for bringing personalities into the debate. “There are the Tory-hating activists who, for some reason, are so dead-set on doing exactly what the Tory government wants by remaining.”
Derya says this archetype “will take any opportunity” to disregard his views: “[They say] we are bigots for being on the same side of the debate as Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.”
He does, however, claim that the “vast majority” of his friends are still undecided; they often voice concerns about leaving the EU, such as visa-free travel and being able to compete in the Euros.
He believes his fellow students are wrong to be concerned about what Brexit could mean for EU funding to universities and the Erasmus scheme, pointing out a number of non-EU countries who participate, such as Turkey and Iceland. “Now,” he concedes, “as a science student, I am concerned about EU funding for universities. This, perhaps, is my biggest concern.”
“I believe life will continue nearly the same.”
Blair Spowart is similarly confused by his fellow students’ attitude towards the EU, suggesting students today are only voting to Remain because of their aversion to the risk of leaving. “One recent student survey found that about three-quarters of students were worried about job opportunities post-Brexit. And I’ve seen a lot of think-pieces blaming the financial insecurity or uncertainty of twenty-somethings for their pro-status-quo attitude – worried about pensions, private market rentals, student loans.”
“But this is quite strange,” he says, “it’s not as if students’ financial situations are uniquely uncertain… today’s students are, for whatever reason, simply more risk-averse than any other groups [or] generations.”
Of course, the issue of the EU isn’t the only referendum many students have had to worry about recently. With nationwide calls for students’ unions to disaffiliate from the NUS over the last six weeks, it’s hard not to draw parallels between the leave camps on both debates. Talks of a lack of representation, undemocratic processes and too much bureaucracy – the similarities are striking.
The pro-Brexit students I spoke to, however, don’t believe the EU is capable of reform. They don’t know specifically how a Leave vote would affect university students and their job prospects afterwards, as no one really can, but they are determined that their futures will be better out of the EU, rather than within it.
On June 23 Jack, Derya, Alex, David, Blair and Julius will cast their votes to leave, embracing the “apocalyptic” uncertainty of doing so.
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