The DSU will hold a referendum on which side, if any, to support in June’s nationwide referendum on whether Britain should remain in or leave the EU.
The decision was originally going to be made via the Union Assembly, the DSU’s highest decision-making body of 46 students, on 17 March. Academic affairs officer Ben Frost had proposed a motion that would make it Union policy that the UK should remain, but the Board of Trustees removed it from the agenda, as it required “wider student consultation”.
When the referendum on the DSU’s official policy does take place, its members will have three options: to support the ‘remain campaign’, to support the ‘leave campaign’ or to back the notion that the Union should stay neutral. The votes will be counted using the Single Transferrable Vote system and, as stated by the DSU website, ‘‘has the obvious deadline of 23 June, the date of the national referendum’’.
At the Union Assembly, various members expressed their concern about the prospect of the DSU taking sides, saying that it would lead to some students feeling “disenfranchised”, as college reps stressed that students they had spoken to, including people strongly in favour of and opposed to Brexit, did not think that it was appropriate for the Union to endorse either campaign. Others were worried that a referendum, which would only require 5% of students to vote to be quorate, could result in a position influenced by an unrepresentative minority of students.
Speaking in support of the DSU’s plans, student officers pointed out that comparable Students’ Unions were campaigning for one side or the other, and that being a Union, they were not required to be politically neutral. Nick Rudd, who chairs Union Assembly meetings, clarified that in the event of the Union backing one side or the other, no society could be ratified whose purpose was to campaign for the opposite result.
Nonetheless, many of the benefits of remaining in the EU were outlined in the removed motion. It was not only noted that Durham had received £27 million in research funding from the European Research Council since 2008 but also that 1,200 Durham students are from EU member states, who, as part of EU policy, saved thousands of pounds by paying the same fees as Home students.
Moreover, Megan Dunn, president of the NUS and a board member of the ‘in campaign’, argued in a piece in The Independent in October that most students are apprehensive of the notion of Brexit: “Students in Britain do not fear today’s modern, diverse world. We fear isolation, not internationalism”. She also said that she “had not heard anything from those campaigning for us to leave Europe which explains how they would protect our prosperity by standing on the world’s side-lines”.
Such a stance appears in line with a poll of national students last year by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) and YouthSight Monitor. It suggested that 70% of full-time students in higher education would vote for Britain to remain in the EU in a referendum, whilst just 13% said they would vote to leave.
Yet, as with the DSU, many student unions across the country are seeking to hold or have already held similar referenda to determine which side they’re backing. A petition was set up in February for Sheffield Students’ Union to hold a referendum on the issue. Sheffield Students’ Union President Christy McMorrow said ‘‘The UK’s referendum on EU membership is a big national decision and we want students to have a big voice in this’’. He then added ‘‘We also want to make sure that your Students’ Union represents your views on the matter accurately – by signing this petition students are making sure that the Students’ Union defends their beliefs when the referendum comes around’’. The referendum in Sheffield asked the question: “Should the Students’ Union actively campaign for the UK to remain in the European Union?” ‘Yes’ won by a comfortable margin.