What will be the fate of European students post-Brexit?



Harry Vizor

Two months ago, the British people made the monumental decision to leave the European Union and go it on our own. Despite having  had plenty of time for reflection, negotiations and decision-making, there is not yet any clear plan nor path for us to go down. Sterling dropped and can’t seem to find its way back up, there was an outburst of hate crime, which slowly seems to be coming back under control and the huge uncertainty over the future of the country is still as alive and widespread as it was on June 24.

With Cameron’s resignation came the reluctance to activate Article 50 (still yet to be triggered) and with May came the most right-wing cabinet we have seen in a long time – and while Labour are at it again, the rest of us are left twiddling our thumbs and trying to get on with life. Perhaps the group most burdened by this uncertainty has been European students, both current and prospective. The utter lack of clarity has left many in a panic, unsure of rising tuition fees, visa troubles and even with a sense of rejection. It’s perhaps reasonable to predict that we will see a steady decline of European applicants to British universities.

Key figures from higher education and the political sphere have joined the queue of pundits waiting to offer their two pence, remaining relatively positive despite the confusion. Matthew Elliott, Chief Executive of the Vote Leave campaign, claimed “The UK is home to three of the world’s top 10 universities. Countries in the rest of the EU don’t come close. As such, after we vote leave we would still attract the brightest students from not only the EU, but right across the world”. Elliott does have a point, we do possess world class universities, but it would be misguided and ignorant to presume that applications from European students will remain at a high level. I agree that British universities will remain extremely attractive places to study but they may soon be unattainable to EU nationals who don’t come from high-income families.

But there may be a glimmer of hope for Scotland thanks to devolution, a strong relationship with the European Union, and a positive majority vote to remain north of the border. As we know, the SNP were and probably still are looking to remain a member of the EU, either through a second independence referendum or through a special status in the EU while remaining a part of the UK. Despite Sturgeon’s best efforts, there appears to have been no progress made.

Principal of Glasgow University, Professor Anton Muscatelli (who has since been asked by Nicola Sturgeon to chair a group of experts to advise the Scottish Government on securing Scotland’s relationship with Europe) released a statement immediately after the vote: “EU Students who have been made an offer for 2016 (or 2017 deferred entry) will be unaffected. Given the complexity of exit negotiations it is unlikely that the current process and funding arrangements will change significantly in the short term. We are therefore encouraging those who are considering applying for 2017 entry to do so in the usual way, and we will keep all applicants informed if there are changes in policy.”

All very well, but it doesn’t really offer anything concrete to students from the continent: perhaps it is comforting but it’s ultimately hollow. The reality of universities having a significant impact on international legislation is unlikely. Undoubtedly most people want to maintain movement of students but it’s pretty conceivable to imagine tuition fees rocketing and making this a far less achievable goal.

A loss of European students will be, unsurprisingly, detrimental to universities. There will be a notable lack of cultural diversity and to add insult to injury, a loss of academic excellence. European students generally score the highest marks across UK universities; Europeans are more likely to gain a First Class degree than their British peers and possess the highest levels of postgraduate qualifications, according to the Economic and Social Research Centre on Micro-Social Change at the University of Essex. One in twenty undergraduates at British universities is European, and one in ten postgraduates hails from the continent. This creates an extremely strong workforce at the UK’s disposal, which Theresa May seems keen to abandon, with her commitment to sending foreign students home as soon as possible.

Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, said in a statement: “The free movement of talent, the networks, collaborations, critical mass of research activity and funding from EU membership have played a crucial part in the success of Russell Group universities”. It’s no surprise that leaders in higher education are speaking out and pleading for minimal change as UK universities generate around £73 billion a year for the UK economy, with European students contributing £3.7 billion of that sum.

Martīna Adoviča, 22, a fourth year law and French student, originally from Latvia and educated in Luxembourg, spoke to The Glasgow Guardian: “I was very saddened by the result, because I think that many people voted to leave the EU for the wrong reasons and that the politicians who instigated the referendum did not have a clear plan for the future, which is now evident“. Thanks to reassurances from the university and Scotland’s strong pro-European stance, Martīna does feel her place at the university is safe. One significant uncertainty does remain though: fees. “Right now I am eligible for SAAS funding, so my tuition fees are paid by them… Regarding fees, I have to admit that I don’t know if they are bound to change. But the funding made available by SAAS is a great way to attract people to Scotland, which works in its favour, so I’d like to hope that this is an aspect that will not be reformed”.

In clarification of this matter, Rachel Sandison, Director of Marketing and Recruitment at the University’s International Office commented that: “There are still really big question marks over what will happen once Article 50 is triggered… and that is something that we are trying to do some scenario planning on now. For this year’s intake, we have seen no impact on EU student numbers as a result of Brexit, but that was because we were very quickly able to clarify the EU funding position”, and confirmed that EU students commencing their studies in 2016/17 will have their funding status protected throughout the duration of their degree programme.

The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities (which includes Glasgow) has tried to address the issue of tuition fees and are attempting to reassure European students, as they demand that the Government guarantees home fee levels for all European students who begin their studies whilst the UK is still a member. The real issue, however, is what happens after we do eventually leave, and it’s exactly that which is has not been addressed. We have been bombarded by statements from senior figures offering reassurances for the short-term, but where are the answers for prospective European students in three or four years time? The Prime Minister has warned that she will not trigger Article 50 until the beginning of 2017, meaning that we wouldn’t officially leave the EU until the beginning of 2019. Even more cause for worry is that new information has arisen suggesting that May won’t invoke Article 50 until the end of 2017 as she may be under pressure to hold-off until after next year’s German and French elections. Delaying negotiations will only lead to confusion, which will serve to make the UK a less attractive place to study.

Antonio Smecca, a 20 year old physics student originally from Italy (who describes himself as “European first and Italian second”) was another of the many attracted to Scotland because of SAAS. “I read online that Europeans have their tuition fees covered by SAAS while studying in Scotland. Since I really don’t like the idea of asking for a loan in order to get my degree, I chose 4 Scottish universities out of the 5 UCAS choices available. Glasgow was my first choice though, because of the city which is full of opportunities for students and because the University of Glasgow is one of the best universities in Europe.” Antonio expressed his dismay at the result of the Brexit vote: “I feel very disappointed. The night before the referendum I couldn’t imagine the outcome of the next day. The morning after… I was really upset… My only consolation was that the whole of Scotland voted to remain”.

Antonio appeared to feel that uncertainty will ultimately be the most damaging aspect to come from this situation. “SAAS will cover my tuition fees for the rest of my degree, which is really comforting… Future European students may not have the same privilege. Unfortunately, before the UK and the EU open the negotiations we will never be sure about what will happen next. I am concerned about how Brexit will affect my academic future. I am concerned about whether or not my degree will have the same value in the UK as in the EU. I am concerned about the free circulation of students and ideas between the UK and the EU”.

Some argue that European students will remain at their current high numbers by referencing high numbers of international students, and in particular those from China. There are currently around 90,000 Chinese students in the UK, which is taken to be indicative of high applications by European students post-Brexit: this is not the case. The argument that EU students will not be deterred by potentially extortionate fees is based on a comparison that does not work – Chinese students coming to the UK are largely being funded by a rapidly growing middle-class, who are in a position to pay these kinds of fees. The same scenario does not exist in Europe as a whole and many European students can only come to study because the fees are lower and they have the option to apply for SAAS funding.

Ultimately we can expect a decline in European students applying to and attending British universities. The Government cannot at this moment in time offer any security to European students, for now they will have to wait in uncertainty. It seems likely that current EU students studying here will be safe in terms of their place at their university and that their tuition fees will not soar, however prospective students are not so fortunate. Only time will tell what will actually happen, but in the short term, the current wave of uncertainty will undoubtedly make Britain a far less appealing place to study.