Brexit: A Student Union’s Perspective

(July 26th, 2016) The UK vote to leave the EU was a shock for many academics. But not only professors and postdocs fear the imminent consequences of the Brexit, many things are at stake also for students.

“The last thing we want, would be the isolation of the British students,” Lea Meister tells Lab Times. Although on the road, the new president of the European Students’ Union still finds the time to extensively answer questions posed to her about the consequences of Brexit for students. She backs up the UK's National Union of Students, who wrote an open letter to their former Prime Minister: “The result from yesterday’s referendum raises many critical questions for students, and for their futures. Students and students’ unions up and down the country in both further and higher education engaged their members and wider community right throughout this referendum debate, and we now more than ever need to ensure that the student voice continues to be heard and reflected as we move forward.”

When, on June 23rd, a slight majority of the people in the United Kingdom decided that their country should leave the economic and political partnership of the European Union, a shockwave went through the higher education system. In its current form, the European Union functions as a ‘single market’, allowing goods and people to move around, as if the member states were one country.

A possible withdrawal from this pact could destabilise the UK’s economy and hinder free movement of persons (and therefore ideas, science and technology) across European borders. First signs of this destabilisation are showing. As a direct consequence, the pound fell more than 15 per cent since the Brexit vote. Since the appointment of Theresa May, the UK's new Prime Minister, it is, however, slightly recovering but fears persist that it will remain weak against other currencies. This is not only bad for the economy, it will also impact international students who must pay tuition fees in a currency other than their own.

And tuition fees could rise even further. Students, counsellors and unions worry that students will have to pay the higher fees for ‘international students’ rather than EU rates when they travel from or to the UK (with possible visa restrictions). Lea Meister explains that UK university fees already show a yearly tendency of substantial rise, which now, potentially, will reach exorbitant heights, as comparison with EU peers will no longer force it to slow down. “Of course this process is then again triggered through the possible separation of European programmes with the possible consequence of completely separating from the European model of public responsibility and public financing of education towards a similar model as in the US, where the cost of education mostly has to be covered on individual basis.”

The European programmes she refers to are the Erasmus+5 scheme that facilitates studying abroad for students in Europe, and Horizon 2020, the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme. Hailing from Switzerland, Lea is all too aware of what exclusions from those programmes might mean. After passing a referendum in 2014 on limited immigration, Switzerland was excluded from parts of the EU programmes, resulting in the need to develop interim solutions of indirect participation.

At the moment, however, it is too early to know how a possible withdrawal of the UK from the EU will impact students. First, the UK has to invoke an agreement called ‘Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty’. This will set in motion the formal process of withdrawing from the EU, giving the UK two years time for negotiations. Although Article 50 has been in force since late 2009, it has never been tested. The implications of a withdrawal from the European Union are therefore likely to take several years. Theresa May has not invoked the Article yet, and it is currently being investigated whether the Prime Minister is actually authorised to do so.

After the Brexit referendum, it took the Erasmus+ programme and many UK universities only a few days to put out official statements for their students and staff. In short, they all state that it is too early to know or predict the impact of the vote on working and studying in and outside the UK (Imperial College London; Oxford University; Cambridge University). They all emphasise, though, that there is no immediate change in the universities’ fee schedule, teaching, research and other activities, or participation in the Erasmus+ programme. Together with the student unions, the universities also stress that they will work closely with the Government to ensure that the higher education sector has a strong voice in the negotiations.

Where most UK universities seemed to be willing and found it necessary to inform their students properly, the universities on continental Europe are lagging behind. Most do not even have a formal statement on their website, or are not responding to requests for an official position about Brexit. The ones that do inform their students and staff are stressing that there will be no immediate consequences for their British students and researchers, and that they are unable to give any more certainties before the negotiations are finished (Amsterdam University, Maastricht University).

The University of Geneva (Switzerland) emphasises that it deplores the UK’s decision to exit the EU, but that it respects this democratic choice. After having been in a similar position two years ago, with the vote against mass immigration, the University has strived for developing bilateral partnerships with European institutions to maintain mobility opportunities for its students. “Our institution has experienced in concrete terms the difficulties to recreate, on a one-to-one basis, relations that used to be regulated under a single agreement. The United Kingdom has not exited the European Union yet which means that the previous agreements in terms of mobility still prevail today. When the time comes, the University of Geneva will do its best to develop partnerships with British universities to ensure affordable student exchange programmes.“

Lea Meister keeps encouraging students to go on exchanges and advises them to carefully check their financing opportunities. The European Students’ Union supports their UK member union in their quest to protect EU students in the UK. Moreover, the umbrella organisation will strive to support a EU-UK deal, “which is not resolving the unfortunate problem on the back of neither British or EU students”. As the UK member union stated: “The voice of students and young people must be heard and represented as critical decisions are now made as to how we move forward. We know that this decision will affect young people more than any other, and it would be wrong that older generations dominate discussions and decisions.”

Thus, there is no need to mourn a lost loved one. This long-lasting relationship has not come to an end, yet.

Hedwig Ens

Picture: Hodan

Last Changes: 08.26.2016