Today I had the pleasure of speaking to students at a school in York about how the EU works, what the key issues facing our continent are, and how we can best tackle such issues.
Naturally, the talk with the students gravitated toward the looming referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU. And it’s right that it did — this referendum is not like a general election, where we can change direction in five years’ time. It will have lasting consequences for all the students I spoke to today. (Indeed, this was the rationale behind lowering the voting age for the referendum, as in Scotland — but in the end the Conservative government denied the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds.)
Young people, like all Brits, benefit greatly from EU membership — from peace and prosperity, to workers’ rights, to environmental and consumer protections. But young people are also much more likely to take advantage of the ability to freely move in the EU, to study or work in another country.
In fact, in 2014, almost 15,600 UK students spent up to a year studying in another European country, up 115% since 2007. This is in large part thanks to the Erasmus scheme – an EU programme that supports higher education students to study abroad. (The initiative also has programmes for staff, teachers, lecturers and support staff to gain professional development through teaching or training abroad.)
What is less well known, though, is that the Erasmus programmes actually extend well beyond the boundaries of academic education. For example, the EU now offers programmes for young people to gain valuable international work experience in a European organisation, for apprentices in vocational education to taking part in a traineeship abroad, and for young people and those working in the youth sector to take part in a youth exchange or a volunteering scheme. Erasmus even has a Young Entrepreneurs scheme which gives new or aspiring entrepreneurs the chance to learn from experienced businesspeople who run small businesses in other countries, on how to cooperate with foreign partners or learn about new markets.
With all these opportunities (and more) for young people at risk if we leave the EU, it’s no wonder that the younger generations are overwhelming in favour of remaining a member of the European Union (according to polls, 64% of under 25s and 70% of university students say that they want to stay in).
That’s why today I concluded my talk with students in York asking them to raise their voices in the coming months on where they see Britain’s place in the world, so that they can continue to enjoy programmes like Erasmus. We simply cannot miss out on this opportunity to have so many young voices heard and actively engaged in such an important debate — and I’m pleased to see organisations like Universities UK and Students for Europe are already working hard to harness this energy and help such voices be heard.