The uncertainty of Brexit

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The UK Brexit vote has opened up considerable uncertainty for institutions, students, and all other stakeholders in international education
  • British officials and institutions are now moving to reassure current and incoming EU students that financial aid and fee policies will remain unchanged for the duration of their studies
  • The immediate impact of the vote on collaborative research activity, and EU research funding for British institutions, is less clear
  • Other sectors, notably work and travel, anticipate that the vote will have a negative business impact as early as this year

Theresa May has been the British Home Secretary, with responsibility for UK immigration, since 2010. In that role, and in pursuit of the Cameron government’s controversial “net migration” targets, she has introduced a number of proposals that have constrained work rights for international students, raised visa fees, imposed tighter controls on student immigration, and expanded monitoring and reporting responsibilities for British institutions.

Today, in only the latest twist in the post-Brexit political whirlwind in Britain, she became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Ms May has been clear in her position that “Brexit means Brexit” and that she now intends to pursue the best-possible deal for the UK as it leaves the European Union.

One of the challenges facing the new Prime Minister will be to try and establish as much stability and clarity as possible in what is likely to be a period of profound uncertainty. There are many questions surrounding the British exit from the EU, and we have set out some of the key issues for international educators, in and out of Britain, below.

Student mobility

EU students make up about 5.5% of all higher education enrolment in the UK, which works out to roughly 125,000 university spaces. Nearly half come from five leading sending markets in Europe: Germany (13,675), France (11,955), Ireland (10,905), Italy (10,525), and Greece (10,130). With Britain in the EU, those students are treated as domestic students. They pay the same fees as British students and have access to the same financial aid.

There has been some speculation among competing destinations, including Australia and Canada, as to whether a Brexit opens up new recruiting opportunities in Europe. There may be something to this but this is where the uncertainty we noted above starts to factor in.

There is precedent, for example, for a country to participate in European mobility initiatives without being a full member in the European Union. Norway does not belong to the EU, yet it participates by special agreement in Erasmus+, one of the largest mobility programmes in the world.

It does so, it should be said, through its acceptance of a range of EU legislation and requirements. A non-member’s failure to abide by EU policy can just as easily see them excluded. This was the case for Switzerland when its participation was suspended following a 2014 Swiss referendum vote in favour of limiting immigration.

The implication for the UK now is that it may have an opportunity to continue in European mobility initiatives, particularly Erasmus+, but this will likely be contingent on Britain’s acceptance of a wide range of EU principles and policies.

The other question hanging in the air is whether or not a Brexit would usher in differential fees for EU students in Britain. Alexandra Michel, the associate director of the Germany-based education agency College Contact, told Inside Higher Ed recently that she thinks any such change in tuition rates could move German students on to other European destinations. “I would think [they] would be looking at other countries within Europe,” she said. “They might be looking at Ireland. I think Irish universities and colleges would be benefiting quite a bit; it’s the only other English-speaking country in the European Union and tuition fees are very low in comparison. They might also be looking at other countries that have a lot of programmes taught in English, such as Denmark, Norway, Sweden, maybe the Netherlands. Quite a few might stay in Germany and do only a semester or two abroad.”

The research question

A similar uncertainty surrounds joint research activities with European partners, and the UK’s ongoing participation in the Horizon 2020 funding programme in particular.

Roughly 15% of the academic staff at British universities come from EU member states, and UK institutions now receive about £1 billion (US$1.3 billion) annually in EU research funding.

Aside from funding, there is also the question of drawing research talent to Britain. “This is a big blow for the hiring of talented people across the EU,” Ewan Birney, co-director of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, said in a recent Guardian interview. “The overall mood which Brexit sends – that foreign nationals are not welcome – will I think be a deterrent to the top people coming here.”

Revisiting uncertainty

Writing in University World News, higher education consultant Hanneke Teekens argues that the natural drive to openness in international higher education will help counter any dampening effects on mobility. “In the short term [Brexit] probably will not have any direct impact [on higher education],” she says. “It will take several years before it becomes clear how the UK and the EU will continue working together.” Ms Teekens expects, however, that the greater impacts over the long-term will be with respect to research activity.

In other sectors, the expectation is for more immediate impacts. The World Youth Student and Educational (WYSE) Travel Confederation recently surveyed its members as to their expectations in the wake of the Brexit vote, and nearly half of respondents (45%) said that they believe their businesses will suffer as a result over the next year. The WYSE survey found that au pair and work experience businesses – that is, those whose clients generally require visas – are expecting the biggest declines in business volumes.

For the moment, British institutions and stakeholders are pushing back on some of this uncertainty by trying to reassure EU students that the status quo will hold. The Student Loans Company, along with Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson, have announced that current EU students, as well as those beginning their studies this fall, will continue to have access to UK loans and grants throughout their programmes of study.

A number of individual institutions – such as the London School of Economics, Newcastle University, and the University of Reading – have also reassured current and incoming students that their fees will remain unchanged for the duration of their studies.

“For students, visitors, businesses and entrepreneurs who are already in the UK or who wish to come here, there will be no immediate change to our visa policies,” added Minister Johnson.

“Many of these questions will need to be considered as part of wider discussions about the UK’s future relationship with the EU, but where we can provide further information, we will do so. There are obviously big discussions to be had with our European partners, and I look forward to working with the [education] sector to ensure its voice is fully represented and that it continues to go from strength to strength.”



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