Nearly two years ago, UK Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 and initiated the process of negotiation to make the UK’s departure from the European Union (EU) as smooth as possible. Now, with less than 2 months to the beginning of the implementation period i.e. the transition of the UK leaving the EU, and the UK government still yet to create an adequate deal, much of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit still remains. As discussions concerning the impacts of Brexit develop, it is important that we do not exclude a certain group from the conversation: students.
Over the years, the UK’s higher education institutions have attracted students from all over the world, including beyond the borders of the European Union. According to a research paper published in June 2013 by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 51% of students at privately funded higher education providers domiciled outside of the UK . But it is the ease of free movement within the EU that has proved particularly valuable, allowing EU nationals to enter smoothly into the UK, enrolling on a variety of higher education courses whilst UK students have increasingly taken advantage of year-abroad schemes to enhance their degree programmes, in addition to undertaking full courses at EU universities. Alongside universities across the UK and the EU forming beneficial partnerships, programmes like Erasmus+ have been created to enable students to participate in education in other countries, with benefits including improved language skills and a deeper experience of other cultures.
But with Brexit looming, what can be said of the future of programmes like Erasmus+? The government issued an “updated technical notice” which outlined the future procedure for continued participation: proposals concerning 2019 should still be presented as usual however, for future involvement of UK organisations in Erasmus+ and other related programmes, the government must “reach agreement with the EU” and plans to discuss this with the EU . Even so, this seems to only protect participation planned prior to the UK’s withdrawal. Post-Brexit, if UK organisations are still able to continue in Erasmus+ and other related programmes, extra costs may arise from an intensified bureaucratic process which could be passed on to students in the event that the government does not provide extra funding.
EU citizens, including those currently studying at UK higher education institutions, are already facing a formal procedure to guarantee their stay after the UK leaves the EU: they can apply to the EU Settlement Scheme to secure their legal residence in the UK after June 2021, where a successful application will grant them pre-settled or settled status . For those who already have indefinite leave to remain or another legal document validating their permanent UK residence, some may argue that is there is less uncertainty but for those who plan to enter the UK outside of the implementation period, no guidance has been given. It is unknown whether they will need to apply for visas, or what their status will be. Their entry rests upon the nature of the deal that the UK government is yet to finalise. Even with the scheme, an error rate of one per cent could result in approximately 40,000 people being wrongly detained or even deported . Can the government really guarantee a 100 per cent success rate given the consequences of the Windrush scandal?
From the UK’s involvement in programmes like Erasmus+ to the status of prospective EU students in the UK, it is clear that the government must consider the needs of all students, including those of prospective students, and their concerns. After mounting pressure on the UK government to clarify the fee status for EU nationals, in July 2018, Education Secretary Damian Hinds confirmed that the government would continue to freeze maximum tuition fees for EU students in 2019/20 and that they would remain eligible for ‘financial support’ during this time . But yet again, for prospective students, uncertainty resurfaces.
This uncertainty extends to a question that has plagued the minds of the nation: will free movement be included in the deal? It is through free movement that EU nationals and UK citizens have been able to engage in higher education courses in EU member states, with some ultimately accepting career opportunities which require this same freedom of travel rights. A deal that does not include free movement is thus a deal that does not incorporate the needs of students.
Brexit will affect not only this generation of students, but the lives of subsequent generations. For students who are still yet to enter UK and EU universities and higher education institutions, for students who are yet to graduate and wish to embark on the Erasmus+ programme, for those who wish to teach and to volunteer through these types of programmes, what does the future look like?