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Students: what does a Brexit mean for them?

Wednesday 02-03-2016 - 17:03

Research recently conducted by the Higher Educational Policy Institute (HEPI) found that 77% of those students asked would vote to remain in the EU if the vote were to take place tomorrow.

Whilst for us it appears a number to be celebrated, when you dig down into the data, many of those students stated that they hadn’t actually given the referendum much thought. For me, this demonstrated one of the biggest challenges facing us in the months leading up to the referendum - how to ensure students are educated and engaged.

I believe that students have a vital role to play in this referendum.

Not only because it’s clear that an exit from the EU would massively impact on UK higher and further education, but because students should be active citizens in society, and must shape the debate that influences this referendum.

But if we want students to contribute to this debate, we have to reframe the narrative that surrounds it. Throughout the ongoing debate about the implications of a ‘Brexit’ on higher education, discussions have been framed solely around economic productivity, research capacity and funding within the UK. Whilst important, public debate has so far failed to adequately address the direct repercussions on students, current and future. Failing to do so risks shutting those who stand to lose so much out of the debate. It misses an opportunity to engage a generation of students.

The ability to study abroad has been proven to have long term benefits for those individuals who partake – in their future employment, and in developing an understanding and awareness of other cultures and societies.

However the UK currently has the second lowest level of outward student mobility in Europe. For me, this is characteristic of an already insular society, where the decline in modern foreign languages has further fed a reluctance to study abroad. Whilst the Erasmus scheme has been successful in increasing the mobility of generations of students, an exit from the EU would risk limiting such opportunities, and further reduce the mobility of an already static student population. In addition, UK students currently benefit from the markedly cheaper or free tuition fee levels across most of Europe, but withdrawing from the EU would increase the cost of study in Europe, further limiting the attractiveness of outward mobility for UK students and making sure studying in Europe is only accessible to well off students.

Free movement holds benefits not just for the individual but for society and the economy - outward student mobility is essential in preparing students for an ever expanding global workplace and ensuring the UK is able to actively participate in this global economy. With existing collaborations with European and global manufacturing, much of the knowledge economy fostered in our education system is preparing our students for jobs that simply don’t exist in the UK. Free movement is even more essential in organisations whereby job placements require regular rotation between different countries - and many graduate schemes rely on their graduates being mobile within Europe. The UK’s ability to properly compete in European and global manufacturing relies on the free movement of these corporations’ employers, and on a mobile workforce.

A reduction in outward student mobility would also be mirrored by a decrease in the inward mobility of the number of EU students coming to study in the UK. There are currently 125,000 students in the UK Higher education system from Europe, bringing with them knowledge, skills and cultural diversity. Whilst comparably UK fees remain higher than the rest of the EU, EU students benefit from only being charged the rates of home student, as opposed to the higher fees charged international students. An exit from the EU would result in students from the rest of the EU consequently being charged international students’ fees, of upwards of £13,000 per year. As attractive as that may sound to some Universities in the UK, overreliance on international student fees as a source of income is already unsustainable, and given the stark contrast in tuition cost to the rest of Europe, it’s likely that if charged international student fees,  recruitment of EU students would fall drastically.

However, it’s not just the financial implications on EU students that would likely drive a reduction in student recruitment. Already an increasingly hostile host country to come and study in due to aggressive immigration controls, the resulting tightening of regulations on visa controls as a result of non EU status would probably further disincentivise EU students from persuing study in the UK Higher education system. Tighter immigration controls would likely result in communities becoming increasingly hostile, further limiting the attractiveness of migration to the UK, whether for study or work. UK students wishing to study in Europe would find similar financial and physical barriers, making affordable study outside of the UK more difficult.  

The sharing of skills, knowledge and expertise seen through the inward and outward mobility of students and academics enabled through membership of the EU is vital for the UK to develop a competitive knowledge economy in an increasingly global workplace.

But we must encourage free movement to study and learn, not only to further academic opportunities and a knowledge economy, but to encourage a generation of global citizens and foster social cohesion.

Like many aspects of the debate, when we examine the benefits of student mobility, on the individual and society, it can be easy to fixate on the economic. But it’s the social and cultural benefits that are arguably hard to measure but provide some of the most powerful rewards.

Freedom of movement has given us diverse communities and campuses.

It’s enabled younger generations to experience an educational journey alongside students and academics from all corners of the globe, expanding their cultural and social knowledge and understanding. It’s contributed to the creation of cohesive communities and a socially tolerant society. A Brexit would not just limit the diversity of our campuses, but risk reversing the currently outward-looking, international culture of our education system.

But students aren’t just concerned about the impact of a Brexit on their educational communities, but on a resulting insularity within society more broadly. My generation is connected to young people around the world more than ever before, with globalised networks, campaigning collectively on global issues- we don’t fear this diverse, international world, we fear isolation.

In an increasingly uncertain global world, cooperation and communication are more important than ever, and whilst a Brexit wouldn’t instantly shut off this channel, it’s the symbolic act of insularity and the message that sends to the rest of the world that concerns the younger generation.

For me, and for many young people, this referendum is about more than just number crunching and statistics –it’s about values and principles, it’s about culture and cooperation. My generation care about economic arguments, sure, but we also care about our basic rights, as workers, as future parents, as active citizens. About our ability to come together with young people from across Europe to work together collectively to make Europe and this world a better place.

Nowhere is this more evident than in my work with the European Students’ Union (ESU), where student representatives from across Europe meet regularly to influence education policy formation at a European and global level, and strengthen the rights of students. Able to directly shape the work of ESU, NUS UK’s involvement in ESU ensures we, as students, have a voice in European level decisions. Able to access EU funding for collaborative projects with other countries, we work in partnership to better the European education system, to cooperate in social justice and change projects.

The EU was set up in a post-war Europe to foster peace and solidarity, and ESU is a vital vehicle for furthering that. A forum that enables students to be at the forefront of international solidarity and cooperation, the European students’ union demonstrates that as a generation, we want to work together for a peaceful world. For me, this is one of the most powerful benefits of our place within Europe.

Being part of Europe offers so much for students, from jobs and education to cultural and social opportunities. Whilst many of those students interviewed in the HEPI survey hadn’t actually considered why they’d vote yet, for me that’s reflective of a generation who have grown up within the EU, who when asked, probably haven’t considered why they have such faith in the institution. Students and young people have benefitted immensely, whether from educational opportunities, or direct EU investment in employment funds such as Jobs Growth Wales. But even at a very basic level, students benefit every year from EU membership simply from cheap and easy travel across the continent. How many thousands of students take part in an ‘I love tour’ trip to Salou, ski trip to the Alps, or city study breaks as part of their course each year? Whilst many students may have taken the EU for granted until now, I can guarantee that the prospect of hiked air fares and the loss of the easy inter-rail experience would be enough of an incentive for even the most cynical students to take an interest.

And so the debate around our continued membership of the EU has to begin talking to young people and students about the issues they care about – their future work opportunities, the continued protection of their rights, the cultural and social opportunities abroad.

But my generation must now also sit up and listen, before this decision is made for them.

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