By Hannah Bieber
Starting my first semester in Uppsala, Sweden, I have encountered a lot of students who came from the United Kingdom to do their Erasmus+ year abroad. We discussed extensively about Brexit and the uncertainties that currently hang over their head. These young British citizens who may be the last to enjoy the Erasmus+ experience as we know it today, have made me realize that students may be the first to suffer the consequences of Brexit.
Brexit and the higher education system
No one knows for sure what consequences a ‘no-deal’ Brexit will have on the British – and European – higher education system.
First of all, British universities may become less attractive for students from the European Union (EU) countries. In January 2019, the Higher Education Statistic Agency (HESA) published a bulletin which showed that, in the year 2017/2018, 5% of the undergraduate students in the United Kingdom came from EU member states. At a masters level, EU students accounted for 8% of the total of postgraduates. However, previous reports reveal that since the referendum, Britain has experienced a slight but significant drop in the number of EU students enrolled in its universities.
In addition, in the event of a ‘no-deal’, EU students would lose their privileged status. Indeed, as fellow European citizens, they had to pay the same tuition fees as other British students – while international students from outside the EU had to pay twice the price. When Britain leaves the Union, no one knows for sure if EU students will still benefit from this status. If it is not the case, many could be discouraged from turning to the United Kingdom for their studies, as argues a ‘No-Deal Briefing’ published by a consortium of 136 Universities in August 2019.
On the other hand, the question of residence permits might also make British universities less attractive. The government has already promised that, even in the event of a ‘no-deal’, EU students would be able to remain in the country for up to three years. But for these universities, this is not enough. Longer curriculums, such as Bachelors with a year abroad, some Scottish Bachelor and PhD last longer than three years. What would happen to these students? Universities demand more efforts from the government in this respect.
Finally, what makes the United Kingdom such an attractive place for students is the quality of education, greatly due to the high level of research. But this has been reached partly thanks to EU funding, such as the European Research Council (ERC) and Marie Sklodowska Curie Actions (MSCA), as the briefing argues. Without these funds, British research might be hindered and the universities could become less competitive than others in Europe and the world. In an article published in March 2019, the International Students House also pointed out that students were a very benefitting immigration on many levels. Thus, the United Kingdom higher education system has a lot to loose in the event of a ‘no-deal’.
What about Erasmus+?
On March 27, 2019, the European Parliament adopted a regulation to ensure that British students who had started their year abroad could still get their grant even after Brexit and even in the case no deal was reached. Thus, these students are assured to get their mobility grant – on which their entire mobility relies for most of them. But it will not be possible for students to apply for the Erasmus+ grant after Brexit. If their mobility starts after the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the Union, they will not be benefiting from the Erasmus+ program. This could keep many of them from doing a year abroad.
Another downside is the question of residence permits. In countries like Sweden, international students from outside the European Union have to apply for a visa in order to live and study there. These administrative measures make the mobility more complicated prior to the departure, it can also be a drawback for many students in the future.
In February 2019, Universities UK launched a #supportstudyabroad campaign to demand financial support from the government for international mobilities. Apart from the human and personal journey one experiences when they study abroad, this campaign highlighted the fact that students who have spent time studying abroad are more likely to get a first-class degree and have higher chances of getting hired at the end of their studies. In the last three years, British universities have been increasingly pressuring the British government to allot funds that would allow students to do a year abroad, even in the event of a ‘no-deal’, which would mean the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the Erasmus+ program. The recent reports and briefings have been requesting a ‘full-funded replacement scheme to Erasmus+’ to allow students who are supposed to go abroad during their degree to do so. But will this be enough?
The generation that was robbed
What particularly struck me when I met British students here in Uppsala and talked about Brexit is that they did not recognize themselves and their country in this situation. This generation of young people has been growing up in a Europe where they could fly and stay anywhere without residence permits, where they could feel themselves both British and Scottish and European. In a book published in 2019 called Youthquake 2017: The Rise of Young Cosmopolitans in Britain, James Sloam and Matt Henn observed that 80% of the full-time students voted to remain in the European Union. According to the authors, this category of people is more open to cosmopolitanism, mobility and cultural exchanges. In August 2018, the BBC News published a survey that revealed that over 80% of the people aged 18-24 would vote to remain in the European Union if a new referendum was launched.
The problem is that, at the time of the referendum, most of the people who are now on exchange and did not have the right to vote. This is the frustration that many of those I encountered have manifested. They feel robbed and have also chosen to do a year abroad because they knew that they might be one of the last generations of British Erasmus+ students. This is not to mention that some of the Scottish and Northern Irish think that, since their region voted to remain, it is unfair that they have to suffer of the consequences of the Brexit.
Many of them also evocated the fact that their last two Prime Ministers – Theresa May and Boris Johnson – had not accessed their position after democratic elections. But more than that, what is particularly difficult for these students right now is the uncertainty. Brexit should have happened in March 2019 and ever since, the situation seems to only get more and more complicated every day. These students do not know if they will have to apply for a residence permit any time soon, or what repercussions a ‘no-deal’ Brexit could have on their year abroad. They are powerless, waiting for a government which they feel does not represent them any more to make decisions that might have a tremendous impact on their life.
No one knows when Brexit is actually going to happen, nor how it will happen. Lately, the British government has been heading towards a ‘no-deal’, but this process is so long and complicated that we may not see the end of it any time soon. However, one thing is certain: these young British citizens will keep on carrying the European dreams and ideas – of freedom, mobility and exchange. Whether they transmit them to the next generations is now up to us all.