UK’s continued membership of the European Union

On 23 June 2016, a hotly contested debate on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union culminated in a public vote narrowly in favor of the “leave” campaign. The full implications of the referendum – including exactly when the UK will commence its exit (“Brexit”) and the terms on which it will do so – are as yet uncertain, and likely to remain so for some time.

With Prime Minister David Cameron committed to stepping down by October, the coming months will see the country gain a new prime minister, and possibly hold a general election – in turn shaping the negotiating point from which the UK commences exit talks. Once Article 50 is formally invoked, there is then a two-year negotiating window, and it’s unlikely there will be any significant changes until this is closed.
Once the process is complete, what could Brexit mean for students from the EU, UK and elsewhere?

Fees and financial aid

One of the most pressing questions for current EU students in the UK, and those intending to enroll in the near future, is whether tuition fees will change. Many UK universities have already issued public statements pledging to maintain current fee levels for existing EU students until the end of their studies, as well as those about to commence studies in the 2016/17 academic year. The Student Loans Company (SLC) has also confirmed that EU nationals who are already studying in England, or about to commence studies, will remain eligible for the loans and grants that currently apply, throughout the duration of their course.
In the longer term, it seems likely that EU students will have to pay the higher fee rates that apply to those from outside of the EU. However, those looking on the brighter side have pointed out that the the pound’s fall in value, if sustained, could make studying in the UK more affordable for all international students.

Visas and work

With immigration controls so central to the Brexit debate, it is likely that new regulations will be introduced in the near future (though probably not until the two-year negotiating period is over). If the UK withdraws from existing agreements on freedom of movement, future EU students may need to apply for a Tier 4 student visa or a short-term study visa, in order to study in the UK. However, it’s also possible that the government will revise visa conditions in light of the changing situation, introducing new processes or requirements either for EU students or for all internationals.
It is likely the UK government will eventually set a new target for overall immigration numbers, and introduce a points-based visa system for incoming EU nationals. It is not clear whether international students will be included in this overall number, but the new points-based system would apply to those intending to work in the country after completing a degree. Currently, the most common visas for working in the UK, including Tier 2 (General), require applicants to have a job offer in place before applying for a visa. If this remains the case, life could become significantly more difficult for EU nationals. But it is possible the UK will reach some form of compromise on the freedom of movement issue, perhaps by introducing a grace period in which graduates and other EU citizens can search for work within the UK.

Outbound mobility from the UK

When we spoke to students a few months ago, many UK students said they were concerned Brexit would limit their opportunities to study, travel and work elsewhere in the EU. During the 2013/14 academic year, 15,566 UK students participated in Erasmus study and work placements, and this number has grown significantly in recent years (by 115% from 2007). UK students studying full degree programs on the continent currently pay significantly lower tuition fees than they would at home in many cases, as well as enjoying all the benefits that come from international experience.
It’s likely that in future, UK students will face higher fees in many (though not all) European countries, as they move into the ‘non-EU’ category. They will also need to apply for student visas, and in some cases may have reduced rights to work during and after their studies. British students will also presumably no longer be eligible for Erasmus funding – or not to the current extent – though of course UK universities will strive to maintain strong exchange partnerships within and beyond Europe.

Research funding & collaboration

What about those pursuing research-based programs and careers in the UK? Following the referendum result, British researchers have voiced concerns about the potential loss in EU funding – which currently amounts to almost £1 billion annually. There are also concerns about the potential decline in incoming talent; 16% of researchers at British universities currently come from other EU states. Research partnerships between institutions may also decrease, and – if you listen to the most pessimistic predictions – industry investment could fall, while borrowing may become more difficult (and expensive) for universities and the government.
From the more positive side, the strong reputation, facilities and relationships of UK universities will certainly not disappear overnight, and the UK higher education sector is strongly united in its determination to maintain current levels of opportunity for all students and faculty members. No doubt the nation’s universities and students – both domestic and international – will be important voices in the discussions yet to come.

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