Before I go into the likely implications for British students and international universities I would like to make a personal observation that will also serve to highlight the biggest immediate concern.
I was there at the birth of the single market in 1993. Overnight I was able to live and work without restriction, without having to prove any particular skill or talent, a test I most certainly would have failed. I worked on a zero-hours contract, experienced financial and housing difficulties beyond anything I have ever encountered elsewhere but eventually achieved a certain stability and a level of integration. I never once had the power to deprive anyone else of a job or a home and, if benefits were available to me, it was certainly easier to get a job than try to claim. I was told to fuck off back to my own country, I was told ‘we like you but it’s all those others from the east we don’t want’. On one unforgettable occasion I was chased through the streets of Friedrichshain by a bunch of neo-Nazis. What all these things have in common is racism. You could argue whether they are points on a continuum but when it comes down it, it is just racism and must be given no quarter. The idea that those who voted to remain don’t “get” the anxieties of those who voted to leave is nonsense; fear of foreigners is one of our basest human instincts. Surrendering to it, as many if not all who voted leave did last week, is beneath contempt. We have already seen a worrying rise in racially motivated hate crimes and it is essential to be vigilant. This might seem like a hysterical overreaction and let’s hope it remains that way. I don’t hold out much hope though, particularly as the vote leavers haven’t yet realized they will not get what they want when it comes to immigration.
Freedom of movement made me who I am. I cannot see any other way that I could have gained the knowledge and experience I needed to find my true calling in life (not something I say lightly) without the rights granted to me by the European Union. This is a right that is worth defending for all Europeans. Within a single market, the rights of one must be the rights of all. I cannot support its removal at the behest of those who somehow imagine the world owes them a living without going out to look for it.
So, what happens next for British students? Well, this rather depends on how the negotiations go. I think at this stage we have to accept that the UK will actually leave the European Union. Maybe there will be a pause to reconsider when it becomes abundantly clear that the best result we can achieve will be to remain on exactly the same terms we currently enjoy but I am not hopeful. I think we can rule out a better arrangement for either the UK or EU than the status quo, however. Our negotiating team will likely consist of the same incompetents who got us into this mess.
Assuming negotiations to leave do actually start at some point, there will be a window of probably two years until they are completed, although it seems that this could happen quicker or might take a lot longer. This isn’t a process that has been attempted in the past.
Nothing will change for UK students at European universities until our removal actually occurs. On the day this happens, the consequences will either be drastic or unnoticeable. I can’t really foresee any middle point.
In the event that our post-Brexit solution is to join the European Economic Area, there will be no change as the same rules will apply regarding student finance and tuition fees. If this is not the final outcome, and bearing in mind it will require freedom of movement so it quite probably won’t be, then the consequences will be different.
For students at private universities in Europe there is still unlikely to be any noticeable change, at least in terms of finance. As most students at these universities are already paying tuition fees that are not dependent on their EU citizenship it is probable that they will not be affected at all. However, if they are in receipt of scholarships or means-testing based on their EU passport, this could be a risk, theoretically. Private universities will undoubtedly have greater scope for discretion when dealing with individuals caught up in this madness. There may be a requirement for student visas in the future, there may be restrictions on students being able to work but I imagine this will vary from country to country.
The bigger risk is for students at public universities in Europe because they are likely to benefit from subsidies or funding arrangements in the countries that are hosting them, even if they are not aware of this fact. The willingness of those countries’ governments to continue this support after we leave the European Union is likely to be close to zero if it is not reciprocated by the UK government, which it almost certainly won’t be if we don’t agree to all the terms of the single market. This will see tuition fees go up overnight for British students from the current level offered to EU students to the international tuition fees all other students pay. This could be a sizeable increase in the Netherlands or Denmark, for example.
In a previous blog post on this subject, I wondered whether anyone would actually spend any time considering the fate of British students. Given that approximately 75% of 18-25 year-olds voted remain, the result could be interpreted as a betrayal of British youth. Many of them have been quick to cite their threatened access to cheaper higher education as a major problem. Knowing as I do just how few of them were likely to have gone abroad under any circumstances, this does somewhat smack of protesting a bit too much. It seems, however, that I might have been worrying for nothing. We are less than a week into this whole fiasco and already the Italian PM, Matteo Renzi has come up with a suggestion to assist British students. An interesting idea but not without legal difficulties, not to mention being grossly unfair to other non-EU students. If this were to become a permanent part of the post-Brexit higher education landscape, then it is hard to see any circumstances under which a British student could be advised to stay at home. I suspect this might be seen as a solution to the rather more immediate problem of what do with students who will experience this cataclysm midway through their degree.
One question we really cannot answer: For those students with EU nationality currently in the UK (not dual citizens), if they leave to go to university will they be allowed back in afterwards? Any help with this one would be much appreciated.