Today – the day that the UK Prime Minister will trigger Article 50 and begin the UK’s two-year journey towards exiting the European Union (EU) – UK students remain concerned about Brexit. As the generation that will have the longest to live with the consequences of the UK’s departure from the EU, it is important to acknowledge the attitudes of today’s student population and attempt to understand their dissatisfaction with the Government’s decision to pursue a so-called ‘hard’ Brexit.
In the run up to last summer’s referendum, a report published by HEPI in conjunction with YouthSight found that seven out of 10 students wanted the UK to stay within the EU. Rather than coming round to the prospect of Brexit over the past nine months, new data from YouthSight and Open Britain show the strength of students’ pro-European sentiment in the UK is stronger than ever.
On referendum day the overwhelming majority of students supported the Remain camp, with 84 per cent voting to stay in the EU. Of the 16 per cent who voted in support of the Leave campaign, nine per cent admit to having since developed ‘Bregrets’ about their decision. Topping students’ Brexit worries is a concern over the state of the economy and associated uncertainty over future employment opportunities. More than five times as many students believe that their prospects will worsen due to Brexit rather than improve. The vast majority of students also support a ‘soft’ Brexit (72 per cent) over a ‘hard’ Brexit (17 per cent). With the Government seemingly pursuing the latter, it is unsurprising that students are feeling overlooked by the nation’s policymakers. They believe, by a ratio of 14 to one, that the Government is engaging with young people badly and remain pessimistic about their futures.
As universities across the country begin to prepare for the realities of life outside the EU – working to protect vital research funding and international student numbers – it is imperative that they include in their strategies clear measures to address the concerns of their domestic student communities. What these findings show is that UK students would benefit now more than ever from clear direction and guidance regarding future employment prospects. Universities would do well to ensure their careers services, for example, are closely monitoring the effects of Brexit on the UK labour market and are equipped to provide timely advice to students to enhance their employability in key sectors of the economy. A HEPI paper, Employability: degrees of value (December 2015), has already called for the higher education sector to improve graduate employability and it would be worth institutions revisiting its contents in light of the current context of Brexit.
Other ways in which universities can support their domestic student populations is by adding vocational elements to their degree programmes or introducing personal development plans to encourage students to think strategically about their competitive advantage in the labour market. To ensure UK students still get the skills they need for the global marketplace, universities should be cementing international partnerships and establishing student mobility programmes, particularly if they are to lose access to international exchange schemes like Erasmus+, which have traditionally equipped students with the cultural and linguistic skills favoured by global employers.
As the UK formally begins its withdrawal from the European Union, then, universities should take care not to overlook the very students that will ensure their own sustainability in a post-Brexit world. A future full of ‘Bregrets’ for today’s student community could have harsh consequences for a sector which relies so heavily on student satisfaction levels and success rates to maintain its global reputation and standing. If Article 50 should trigger anything today, it should be a strong sense of solidarity between the sector and its students, who together are facing an uncertain future.