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The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

How students could most influence the referendum

  • 9 May 2016

Universities are fighting a lively campaign collectively and individually in favour of the UK remaining part of the European Union. They have come in for a little criticism as a result from some, but many Vice Chancellors – as Michael Arthur of UCL has pointed out – regard it as a part of their core duty to fight for the funding and other benefits they regard as coming from from Brussels.

One key question is whether this will make any difference to the wider debate in the run up to referendum day on 23rd June. I suspect that much of the lobbying from the higher education sector is not resonating all that much with those parts of the electorate that do not have direct links with institutions. This is because:

  1. it has at times appeared a little self-serving (“it’s all about the money, money, money”?);
  2. the weakness of the Leave side on university campuses has meant the Remain side have not had to hone their arguments much in response to smart opposition (which, to my mind, has again left them talking too much about the money and not enough about the purposes to which EU money is put); and
  3. the national Leave campaign have brushed aside worries about science spending by claiming (rightly or wrongly) that there will be plenty of money for it after we stop signing such big cheques to the EU.

Moreover, HEPI’s own research undertaken with YouthSight shows the majority of students already favoured Remain long before the debate really got underway.

If it is right that the universities’ pro-EU campaign is not that significant to the wider debate (and many people will, fairly, point out it is too early to make a final assessment), then there is still another way they can have a dramatic impact on the result.

There are over 2 million students in UK universities and they can have a bigger impact on a referendum than a general election because there is no such thing as a safe seat: your vote counts exactly the same whether you are in Cardiff or Clacton, Belfast or Birmingham, Edinburgh or Exeter. Yet many students are not on the electoral roll. So the joint efforts of the NUS and UUK, and belatedly the efforts of the Government, to get students registered to vote – and to get them registered at their home address – could have far more impact than any pro-EU campaigning they do, especially if the close polls are an accurate reflection of current public opinion.

As a charity that exists to stimulate debate, HEPI does not take a stance on the referendum. But we do take a view that students and staff should be encouraged to exercise their democratic mandate one way or the other and have long argued that universities and others should do all they can to reduce the potentially negative effects on students of Individual Electoral Registration.

If any of this has got your intellectual juices flowing on the impact of EU membership for UK universities, please do enter our essay-writing competition on the topic, organised jointly with Times Higher Education, which has a few weeks left to run. There are prizes for both sides and further details are available at

Postscript: After writing this blog but before posting it, The Times ran a related story.






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