While I cannot claim any certain knowledge about what will happen should we choose to leave the European Union, this hardly makes me unique. However, I can speculate as well as the next person and when it comes to the impact on British students at European universities I think I can at least have a good shot at trying to assess the key issues. Should we leave the EU, British students will go from being natives in 28 countries to foreigners in 27 (possibly 26 – I suppose Ireland might be different) and this will inevitably have an impact on some of the advantages they currently enjoy.
There are three main issues that would be likely to be affected by “Brexit”: money, recognition and residency. While it is far too early to draw any conclusions about residency and the requirement to get a student visa to study elsewhere in the European Union, I think we can make some assertions relating to the other two.
- Recognition: Currently all degrees from EU universities are recognized as being equal. This is not actually a result of EU membership as such. It depends on participation in the Bologna Process where standards across the European Higher Education Area are notionally harmonized. While there is no legal requirement for all countries to recognize each other’s degrees, within the EU this is currently the case. There are some professional qualifications where national study has always been a vital component (eg. law) and therefore recognition is not always as straightforward in these fields. If we leave the European Union I suppose it is possible that we could stop recognizing degrees from other member states but I doubt there is much political will to do so. After all, a degree from an international university will not automatically become inferior to a British one just because of our membership status. It is possible that the UK might stop recognizing degrees from EU universities but I would regard this as a remote possibility unless there is clear evidence of unsuitability. If a foreign-trained doctor were to be associated with some future disaster, then this might have consequences but I doubt anyone is actively anticipating this outcome.
- Money: This is arguably a lot more complicated. Many of the financial advantages British students enjoy elsewhere in the EU will disappear if we leave. In some countries, eg. Germany or Spain, this will actually make no difference because international students pay the same fees at public universities and there is no access to local student finance for Brits anyway. Where there is a difference (Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden etc.) it is extremely likely that students will notice a change in fees if their EU membership status were to change. There is absolutely no reason to think that students who are currently in the system will be excused any increase if or when it comes into effect. While countries are free to discriminate between nationals of non-EU countries, I cannot see any reason why they would feel obliged to offer more generous terms to British students than to a student from, say, South Africa. Students at private universities would be unlikely to see any change to their current fees as these are largely the same for students of all nationalities, perhaps a little cheaper but not substantially.
It is perhaps worthwhile looking at the likely financial impact on students in the Netherlands in a little more detail as these are likely to be the ones most affected by “Brexit”. Currently, British students pay the institutional tuition fee of €1,984 per year (2016/17) for most courses. They are automatically entitled to a loan for these fees from the Dutch government because it is illegal to discriminate between EU citizens. If we leave the EU, access to this loan (as well as additional loans for maintenance costs available in certain circumstances) will cease. There is no student funding automatically available to non-EU nationals. Brits will be able to apply for scholarships but that is it. Fees will also increase but it is difficult to give a clear answer by how much because tuition is variable depending on subject and university. I would suggest that an annual fee of around €8,000 for arts and humanities, €12,000 for sciences and engineering, €35,000 for medicine, would be a good benchmark figure. So, it is possible that a student on an arts degree could see fees increase by around 300% and medicine could be around 17 times more expensive. These fees would probably increase overnight once transitional negotations have been completed; current students and those starting in 2016 would possibly not be affected but change would definitely occur at some point in the future. We are not talking about a change in student fees here but a change in nationality status. Universities may not feel under any obligation to help out British students and even if they do, it might be financially impossible for them to delay the introduction of the new fees. Currently, they receive a contribution from the government per EU-student which is more-or-less equivalent to the difference in fees outlined above. For a Dutch university to continue teaching a Brit at the lower level, they would be saying that they are prepared to make up this shortfall from their own resources. I doubt there is a strategic case for them to do so. Would the British government be prepared to step in to make up the shortfall?
It is also a possibility that Britain’s destiny after leaving the EU is to join the European Economic Area (EEA). If that is the case then fees would remain at their current low level (not sure about access to financial assistance though). However, given that one of the key requirements of membership of the EEA is free movement of people, I cannot see how this is the desired outcome of the Brexiteers. If we leave, I doubt anyone will be fighting the corner of mobile British students in the lengthy negotiations that would surely follow.