The UK’s 2 million university students appear to be solid backers of Britain’s membership of the European Union – but a poll suggests their support is unreliable and vulnerable to wooing by “out” campaigners.
While 70% of full-time students in higher education said they would vote for Britain to remain in the EU in a referendum, just 13% said they want to leave, according to a national survey of 1,000 students by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) and YouthSight Monitor.
The results suggest students are more pro-European than the population as whole, where recent opinion polls show support for membership closer to 50%.
But assumptions that university students will provide a solid bloc of pro-EU support in a referendum disappear on close inspection. Few show strong enthusiasm for the issue, many want to hear both sides of the debate and a large number say their decision depends on the government’s success in renegotiating EU membership.
“It is clear the UK’s membership of the EU is more popular among students than among the population as a whole. There are diehard antis on university campuses but they make up only a small minority of students,” said Nick Hillman, Hepi’s director and a former government special adviser on higher education.
“Yet in terms of winning the student vote at the referendum, there is much to play for. Most students say they have not followed the debate closely and there is clearly a soft underbelly to the group hoping for the UK to stay in the EU.”
A third – 34% - of those surveyed said they had given the issue little or no thought, and a similar proportion said their views were not strongly held. Nearly half said their support of EU membership was conditional on David Cameron achieving “meaningful reforms” in his renegotiation talks with Europe.
The poll found that half of those supporting membership could change sides in the event of Cameron failing to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership.
“Once students focus on how much money we send to Brussels that could be spent on education instead, and the implications of the supremacy of EU law for the erosion of civil liberties and democratic government, we are confident we will win their support,” said Dominic Cummings, head of the Vote Leave campaign.
The anti-EU camp will also be buoyed by the result showing a majority of students want their universities to host debates with speakers from both sides, while 44% want to hear from the pro-EU side alone.
Just as worrying for those campaigning for British membership, fewer than half of those polled said they would definitely vote in a referendum, suggesting that turnout will be a key battle among students.
Only 46% said they “will definitely vote”, with women less likely to vote than men by five percentage points. As with many of the questions in the survey, those numbers may change once a referendum date is fixed and the national debate takes place in earnest.
“Because students are spread all over the country, their voting power was diluted at the general election. That will not be the case in a binary stay/leave national referendum,” Hillman said. “Indeed, if the ‘stay’ and ‘leave’ sides are as close as recent polls suggest, then the two million UK students could clearly affect the result one way or the other.”
The poll’s results also suggest that universities were justified in launching a pro-EU membership campaign through Universities UK, the group representing vice-chancellors at higher education institutions.
The poll found mixed views on lowering the voting age, despite the relative youth of the students surveyed. While 34% indicated support for allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, 44% showed opposition to the move.
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