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Beyond the headlines and hyperbole: Young people and Brexit Britain

NatashaDownes6 June 2017

Written by Natasha Downes, Media Relations Manager, UCL

Young people have a complex relationship with politics, and they are often described as disengaged and apathetic.

With Brexit expected to hit young people the hardest, what would the outcome of the referendum mean for them? How would it affect their attitudes, aspirations and sense of identity?

These are the questions Dr Avril Keating (UCL Institute of Education) is seeking to answer through her research project, ‘Being young in Brexit Britain’. On Monday 5 June, Dr Keating presented the emerging results of her research in a talk entitled ‘Growing up Global’ as part of the UCL Festival of Culture.

“Most young people voted Remain, but what we wanted to do was look beyond the headlines and hyperbole, to find out if those results would inspire a youth revolution”, said Dr Keating.

In fact, what the emerging results of Dr Keating’s research has so far highlighted is that there are many diverse reasons why young people voted Remain, and that both the In and Out camps had two important things in common: a sense of uncertainty and a lack of information.   As a Millennial myself, I can really relate to this feeling of uncertainty.

An uncertain future

The results so far represent London and the South East, but they have covered a wide demographic of young people including elite students and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. While the vast majority of 15-29 year olds voted Remain, perhaps unsurprisingly, few were enthusiastic Europhiles.

Instead, many young people voted Remain because they thought it was in their best interests, while others voted Remain by default. These young Remainers-by-default felt ill-informed to make their own decision, and as their friends and family were voting this way, it seemed like the safe option to maintain the status quo. When young Leavers were asked about their decision, they also had varied reasons for doing so, including protecting Britain’s sovereignty, addressing immigration and the view that the EU is a costly burden to the UK.

One year on, the Remainers are largely resigned, albeit anxious, while the Leavers are a split between the nervous and the optimistic. But there is a consensus among both camps of having low knowledge about the specifics, and feeling uncertain about what all of this really means for the future of Britain.

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Education Select Committee Brexit hearing session at UCL

MelissaBradshaw9 February 2017

On 25 January, the Education Select Committee held the second Oral Evidence Session of its inquiry on the effect of Brexit on higher education (HE) at UCL.

The committee heard evidence from UCL President & Provost Professor Michael Arthur, NUS Vice-President (Higher Education) Sorana Vieru and representatives of University and College Union, Erasmus Student Network UK, Universities UK, the British Council and London Economics.

There was a strong consensus on the potentially damaging effects of Brexit on HE, and an urgent call for the government to do more to address them.

Professor Michael Arthur

Professor Michael Arthur

The hearing took place just over a week after Theresa May’s historic speech on the UK’s strategy for exiting the European Union, and evidence was heard in two panels.

The Chair of the Education Committee, Neil Carmichael MP, began each session by asking the panellists for their reaction to the Prime Minister’s speech.

Every one of the panellists welcomed the tone of the speech and its emphasis on a “global Britain”, but called for immediate action and more specific detail – particularly in regard to the rights of EU citizens to remain in the UK.

Referring to the Prime Minister’s expressed wish to guarantee the rights of EU citizens, Professor Arthur said: “I’d like to challenge the Prime Minister to go one step further and take the initiative to make the guarantee and challenge the rest of the EU to follow”, arguing that this would give Britain the moral high-ground and provide the negotiations a foundation of good will.

The committee heard evidence of the significant contribution of the higher education sector to the British economy, including the contributions EU staff and students make to the wider economy when they are residing here.

Dr Gavan Conlon (London Economics) also argued that, with education the UK’s fifth largest services export, the HE sector can generate revenue that could contribute to the government’s Industrial Strategy.

The panellists spoke of the positive contributions that EU staff and students make in terms of diversity and ‘soft power’, contributing to Britain’s prestigious academic profile and giving their British peers invaluable experience in international engagement, leadership and collective problem solving. “For a global Britain we need global graduates”, said Rosie Birchard (Erasmus Student Network UK).

The committee also heard evidence that currently UK HE “punches well above its weight” globally – thanks, in part, to our membership of the EU. Jo Beall (British Council) pointed to statistics showing that the UK leads the world in research quality (by field-weighted citation impact) and 1 in 10 world leaders were educated here.

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