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Finding Europe on your own campus

15 Jun 2016

Gavin Costigan, Director of Public Policy at the University of Southampton, on the crucial role universities can playing in fostering EU Referendum debate.

The EU Referendum. As the arguments play out up and down the country, universities are fulfilling one of their age-old functions, and providing a platform for both sides to argue their case, and have those arguments tested. Here at Southampton, we have hosted two Question Time style debates, one in English and one in British Sign Language. We have run a blog site called Views on Europe. We have student societies for both “Leave” and “Remain”, communicating their arguments with at least as much energy and passion as national politicians (and showing decidedly more respect for those opposing them). And the message from them all is – make sure you register to vote, and then make sure you actually do vote.

Separately, when asked by the media about the effects on the University itself of potential Brexit, we have sought a way of explaining the potential outcomes (for students, staff and research collaboration) without breaking any of the delightfully helpful guidance issued by the Charity Commission.

So far, so university. We know our colleagues in other HEIs have been organising similar activities. But we were on a roll. So when we were approached by ITV Meridian, who wanted to film one person from each of the 28 EU member states, we rashly said that we probably had representatives of all 28 on campus, and would be delighted to help bring them together.

The good news is that our optimism was well founded. It turns out that we had students from all EU countries bar Croatia, and staff from all bar Luxembourg. The bad news … it was the middle of the exam period. Also, students it turns out, do not immediately answer emails from their university (plus emailing itself is so 20th Century), and academic staff had many questions we couldn’t answer. Of course, 28 diaries were never going to easily coalesce, so some volunteers could not make the times that others could. Add to that the data protection constraints of not being able to access personal records, and it became a manic detective game. For those interested, the hardest slot to fill was Slovenia, just edging out Luxembourg and Estonia.

In the end, we had all 28 people signed up, but one fell ill on the day. Had he been German or French we might have found a substitute, but we were hard pressed to find a spare Bulgarian at short notice. So ITV filmed with 27 (although they did come back a few days later to film a Bulgarian student). On the day, I found myself surrounded by people from across the campus – undergraduates and postgraduates, post-docs and lecturers, professors and professional service colleagues – all selected by virtue of their passport, not their role, and all asked by ITV to wear T-shirts with the name and flag of their country (not altogether popular with some).

And yet, despite the challenges, when ITV filmed them all together, it did make me think – what an incredible international environment I work in. Where else would you get this? What other British organisation aside from a university could find a person from every EU country from within their community?

In Southampton, the EU is not across the Channel, it’s across the campus.

The finished piece by ITV Meridian can be seen here

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