Should I stay or should I go?

Universities UK’s cross-party debate asked if students should care about the EU. IE Editor Steph Broad reports

Should students care about the EU? A range of students, academics and others interested in having their say on this key question attended a debate in the home of education policy itself, Westminster. The UK has a big decision to make this June and delegates were not too shy to ask tough questions.

Panellists included Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton and former leader of the Green party and Megan Dunn, President of NUS. Both are board members for Britain Stronger in Europe. They were joined by Thomas Collins, UKIP’s student officer, and Owen Paterson, Conservative MP. Both were representing the Leave campaign. 

While we waited for our host Javier Espinoza, Alistair Jarvis, Deputy Chief Executive of Universities UK opened the debate. At present, Alistair says, there are a huge number of students at UK universities – over two million – and 70% want to remain. UK universities have already made their feelings clear – in February, over 100 universities signed an open letter urging the British public to remain inside the EU.

A simple question started the debate and set the tone for the evening: Does the EU matter to students? 

Thomas Collins said students should care, because the EU is an “…outdated and declining political union, doing more harm than good.”

I want us to embrace a global future, not a European one – Thomas Collins

Megan Dunn said students have an important role to play in the referendum. They have gained so much from the EU, both by working with other nationalities and benefiting from EU law. This is their chance to have a say about their future

Students matter more than ever – Megan Dunn

Owen Paterson’s focus, like Collins, was on trade rather than student issues. “We have a once in a generation opportunity to get back to a relationship based on trade,” he says. 

Caroline Lucas brought the discussion back to young people. Students should care – and do. She highlighted that the EU vote is about more than transactional benefits, this is a real opportunity for those who are disaffected to have their say.

Students and young people won’t sit back and let the older generation decide their future – Caroline Lucas

The debate then moved back to free trade. The question of what Britain would look like if we left the EU was clearly difficult to answer, but Paterson was insistent that leaving was key to opening opportunities with countries that don’t currently trade with the EU. Lucas, on the other hand, said we are more effective in negotiating with the rest of the world as part of EU than on our own. 

Dunn said the Leave campaign need to have a better picture of what leaving looks like before people can make an informed decision. Paterson then claimed that the EU is likely to create a new Eurozone without the UK if we don’t act fast – to which Dunn responded that the debate needs to be based on research and facts, rather than anecdotes. 

A student in the audience asked a pertinent question: if the UK is the fifth-largest economy, why can’t we go it alone? Is the EU progressive enough?

Caroline said the EU is not as progressive as it could be, but more so than our own government which is predominantly right-wing. Paterson drew attention to the ‘red tape’ of EU regulation, claiming that leaving would give us more freedom. 

There was a clear divide across the panel, and the audience appeared to react more positively to Lucas and Dunn. However, all agreed on one thing – students should make sure they register to vote. Student voices are progressive but much less likely to be heard, says Lucas, and in the absence of an automatic registration system they urge young people to take action to have their say. 

Here are just some of the reactions on Twitter throughout the debate.

You can also watch short videos of two panellists, Megan Dunn and Caroline Lucas, on the Universities UK website

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