Credit: George Hodan

Priscille Biehlmann

Almost a year has passed since Prime Minister Theresa May signed and sent Article 50 off to Brussels, leading Britain on its first step down the long and winding road out of the EU. Since then, negotiations between the UK and the EU have stalled over everything from the Irish border to the UK’s place in the single market, and the world has been left guessing what a Brexit will truly look like.

Among the many questions that remain unanswered is what Brexit will mean for higher education in Scotland. While any decision on Brexit will likely affect all British university students one way or another, the future of EU students in Scotland is particularly at stake. The University of Glasgow has reassured current EU students studying at the University that they will retain their current immigration and fee status for the duration of their studies.

The Scottish government also confirmed last Thursday that it is extending its guarantee of free tuition for EU students to the 2019/20 cohort, meaning any incoming EU students can breathe a sigh of relief as well. But after that, anything’s fair game. And like most things Brexit, no one quite knows what to expect.

In the most likely scenario, EU students studying in Scotland will be administered as international students, subject to international fees. Under the current arrangement, undergraduate EU students at the University of Glasgow pay the same fees as Scottish students: £1,820 per year – though the Students Award Agency for Scotland (SAAS) covers this fee for most. After Brexit, their fees could rise to £16,650-£20,150 per year, depending on their chosen programme. This is an increase of more than nine hundred percent. For postgraduate EU students, fees would almost triple, rising from £7,650 to up to £21,500.

If this is the case, it is likely that EU student enrolment will drop significantly. “I definitely wouldn’t have come to Glasgow [if those were the fees],” Adriana Iuliano, a third-year chemistry student from Italy, told the Glasgow Guardian. “Many EU students come to Scotland because they get to attend a very good uni for free, plus they get the whole international experience.” She continued, “also, before coming here I had never excluded the option of staying after graduation, but now I don’t think Europeans are seen in the same way as before the referendum.”

There are signs that Brexit is already taking a toll on the University’s EU student population. The University confirmed that the number of EU students enrolling in 2017 dropped by 20% from 2016. Applications to the University from EU countries have also dropped 7% since last year.

Of course, a drop in EU students could mean an increase in the number of spots available for British applicants at the University – though some students question whether this is worth the trade-off. “It’s important to have a diverse student body,” said Eleanor Livingston, a fourth-year law student from the UK. “Encouraging more people into university as a whole is a good idea, but I don’t think discouraging EU students from coming is the best way to do that.”

“I also think there is a strong pro-EU sentiment in Scotland, which was evident in the referendum results,” Livingston said. “I don’t think I would feel right sitting next to a German or French student in class and knowing they have to pay tuition fees while I don’t.” EU students at Glasgow University certainly have one strong voice in their corner during the negotiations – the University’s current principal, Anton Muscatelli, himself an EU-expat born in Italy and chairman of the First Minister’s Brexit advisory board.

The Principal has been vocal about the cultural and economic value he believes EU students bring to Scotland. Speaking to The Times last November, he suggested that the Scottish government should consider ways of maintaining their presence after Brexit.

The University is still trying to sort out what fees future EU students will pay after 2019, but this will likely depend on what support, if any, the Scottish government decides to give to EU students after an EU exit deal is reached. A spokesperson said the University was “continuing to lobby the UK government to ensure that the best possible settlement is achieved for higher education once the United Kingdom exits the European Union.’”

Whatever that settlement may be, it is doubtful that students will know much more before the eleventh hour on 29 March 2019, the deadline for the UK to reach a deal with the EU – a date which by diplomatic standards looms uncomfortably close.