With a nationwide student campaign on Brexit reported last week, in the national media it appears the EU Referendum is still at the forefront of student politics. Yet on campuses, it doesn’t necessarily seem like such a priority; issues like BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, usually in relation to Israel) and free speech are far more dominant than Brexit in debate and conversation. Brexit is the punchline of jokes and another reason to hate older generations, an unstoppable force that we tried – but failed – to stop two years ago and will now be forced to accept.
But with the huge impact Brexit will have upon student life, this is far from the time for students to stop fighting Brexit seriously. EU students will bear the brunt of repercussions; fees could be upped to £20,000 in some cases as EU students are forced to pay standard international rates, and universities are expecting a 60% fall in student numbers in response, meaning courses at prominent universities may close. The prediction of fewer job opportunities in the UK has already hit graduate employment prospects and European study abroad opportunities under the Erasmus+ scheme are in jeopardy after 2020 too. If that wasn’t enough, the loss of European freedom of movement and the UK’s apparent rejection of European values goes against the ethos of diversity and community many students develop at university. And, as young people, its our generation who will live with these effects and who must form their adult lives in their midst. There’s a whole lot of reasons students should be railing against Brexit.
There wasn’t always Brexit apathy on campus though. Students were incredibly engaged with the EU Referendum, as findings from YouthSight a month after the result show. 94% registered to vote, turnout was 87% and 85% of students voted to Remain, all far above the national averages. Students for Europe campaigned nationally in support of the Remain campaign, as did the NUS, individual students’ unions and a wealth of other groups – informal or organised – across the country. Brexit feelings ran deep too, as YouthSight also shows; 77% of UK students felt negative about the result of the EU Referendum and 55% felt very negative - even 17% of students who voted Leave wanted to change their vote if they could. Results from a London School of Economic survey even found that 47% of voters aged 18-24 – most students’ demographic – cried or felt like crying in the wake of the Leave result. Even more than most Remain voters, it seems students passionately believed their country should stay in the EU and struggled to deal with the unexpected reality of the referendum’s result.
Perhaps it is this struggle to know how to deal with the Leave vote that has stymied student opposition to Brexit. Student politics often lacks the cynicism of other political debate and faced with a vote that embodied self-interest and corrupt campaigning, encapsulating much of what is wrong with the UK’s political elite, hopelessness was the uncharacteristic response. On every level it felt that our cause was the correct one – and yet the vote was still lost.
But hopelessness two years ago cannot remain hopelessness now. There’s been more than enough time to mourn – now it’s time to be taking action, if we haven’t done so already. It doesn’t have to mean creating a campaign that makes it to the national press; action is needed on all levels, from simply keeping Brexit part of the student politics conversation, to talking to your MP (Remain or Leave) about the reasons students need to be considered in any upcoming deals or votes. Whether you believe its time for a repeat of the referendum, for a people’s vote on the final deal, or just that we need to press for the best deal on leaving that we can get, there’s still work to be done in the Brexit battle. And students are most certainly part of that.