The UCL Students’ Union has taken a side in the national debate. Cathy Meyer-Funnell reports on the implications.
The UCL Students’ Union has announced that it will actively support a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal, following a resolution passed at the All Student Meeting on the 15th November. An overwhelming majority were in favour of the decision, with 1026 votes in favour compared to just 123 against and 161 abstentions. The Union has already taken the step of writing to Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer – who, incidentally, is the MP for the constituency of which UCL occupies a large proportion – calling for his support of the Union’s People’s Vote campaign.
As the Union is a regulated charity, it believes that nullifying the possible negative consequences of Brexit falls within its charitable objectives. As such, it has a duty to try and prevent a potentially life-changing policy, particularly for the 28% of the UCL student body that live in EU countries outside of the UK. While this motion does appear to represent the majority of student opinion, it has nevertheless ignited discussion about how balanced a student union representing over 40,000 students should be.
Senior figures at UCL have not been afraid to voice their support for a people’s vote, but always emphasise that they are expressing no more than personal views, and that the university remains neutral on the matter. Provost Michael Arthur has expressed his fear of “a big gap in funding and a generation of scientists disappearing”, whilst UCL’s vice- chancellor has been unequivocal in his support for another referendum.
The Constitution Unit, a think tank based in UCL’s Department of Political Science, “has no position” on Brexit or the possibility of a second referendum, yet the university does have a ‘Brexit Mitigation Programme’ in place. Set up in the aftermath of the referendum result in June 2016, it has since been analysing the potential impact of Brexit on university life, and ensuring support for EU students who will be studying at UCL at the point of departure. Evidently, the university is still taking measures to enable its community to thrive in any possible scenario, whilst on a political level remaining impartial.
The People’s Vote is not a party in itself, nor is it a party policy; it is a campaign run by the people, for the people. By pledging its support, the Union is not advocating for any political gain, but rather acting on what it feels is in the best interests of its students. Given the responsibility the university itself has to represent thousands of students and staff, some of whom undoubtedly voted for Brexit, impartiality would seem to be the only option. Students, on the other hand, have a tradition of being politically mobilised and keen to protest. Both UCL and its Students’ Union undeniably have a duty to the care and welfare of their students, yet while the former must abide by its principles of being an institution open to all political beliefs, the Union must act on behalf of what the majority of its members want.
In its role as the representative body for students across the UK, the National Union of Students has offered substantial support to the People’s Vote, going as far as providing transport for those who wished to travel down to the People’s March that took place in October.
The desire for student action in this debate is palpable, especially regarding an issue which has the potential to limit future careers and economic possibilities. However, Brexit’s relentless dominance over the national conversation in the last two years has often eclipsed discussions on other problems with equally damaging prospects, such as climate change or the growing cost of living. Bearing this in mind, it has to be questioned whether such a central focus on Brexit is truly a balanced approach to student concerns.
Of course, the vast majority of those that voted in the All Student Meeting were in favour of this outcome. But will there be student meetings to decide on action for other pressing issues? Students have to wait up to 20 weeks for counsellor appointments, whilst rent at UCL has increased by 52% since 2010. To divert large amounts of time and resources towards the People’s Vote campaign in particular, when there are so many other areas of student life in desperate need of attention, hardly bespeaks an all-encompassing duty of care for each and every student.
In 2017 the NUS launched their Getting the Best from Brexit campaign, with three main objectives in terms of achieving the best possible outcome for students. These include negotiating for special immigration status for students and academics in order to allow for free movement, campaigning for the continuation of the Erasmus scheme, and removing international students from migration targets. It is certain that Brexit will affect international students more than UK students, and London’s “global university”, currently involved in 167 collaborative projects in Europe, will inevitably also bear the brunt of any breakdown in communication with institutions and academics in EU countries. Yet the university body has shown no clear political affiliation, and so the impetus lies with the students themselves to exercise their democratic right and fight for the change they want to see.
Considering this, perhaps the student voice is one that needs to be consulted. If Brexit has inspired such passion and political feeling amongst us, then we should allow this to be channelled into improving our lives in other ways. The recent Extinction Rebellion protests that took place to raise awareness over the impending catastrophe of climate change was also highly relevant and important to students, yet this is not something the NUS has expressed their support for. Brexit may be dominating national news right now, but it will not do so forever. If these student bodies are as keen as they claim to be to promote student rights, this is something which should be reflected across all current affairs, not just the ones with a popular and current campaign attached to them.
This article was originally published in Issue 722 of Pi Magazine.