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How Will EU Decision Affect International Students in the UK?

24th February 2016 Posted by: Amy Murnan

THE debate surrounding Britain and its EU membership has been long, confusing and at times, completely dull. But now that the UK really has voted to leave the European Union, it is more important than ever to understand what the issue, or 'Brexit', means in real terms – and not just for us Brits.

The European Union makes it easier for international students to study in the UK. It means that the UK’s borders must be free to cross for other EU citizens, and that international students do not need a visa to gain entry. It also means that tuition fees are cheaper for these students than for non-EU visitors. In short, the UK’s EU membership has been a positive for the many young Europeans who want to study in some of the world’s best universities. Its rules mean that British higher education is more accessible, and to more than just the wealthiest candidates.

There is, of course, a lot more to the Brexit argument than this; both the pro and anti-EU camps claim that their option will reap economic benefits for the country, and some say that leaving the EU will boost employment. However, for some factions of the 'Leave' campaign, immigration and the number of EU visitors settling in the country is a pressing concern, and it's this aspect of the debate that will affect prospective students.

Already, since the EU referendum, there has been an alarming spike in racist incidents in the country, with some saying the vote has revealed a startling social rift between the opinions of those who welcome foreigners, and those who do not. Where an international student from elsewhere in Europe enjoys the opportunity to study in the UK, a significant portion of the British population view this as a threat: an uncontrollable floodgate that can potentially allow thousands of people to enter the country.

If the plan to leave the EU is successful, though, international students may face bigger obstacles to studying in the UK than public opinion: changes to immigration laws. It will take around two years for Britain to fully leave the Union, but once it does, freedom of movement may no longer be permitted.

What will change if the UK leaves the EU?

As with many of the supposed outcomes of leaving the EU, it is difficult to guess precisely what will change if the UK leaves the EU. At the very least, though, international students will need a visa to study in the UK. This in itself will pose problems for some students. At the moment, the general Tier 4 student visa for non-EU students applies only to full-time academic courses and requires a valid passport. Immediately, this eliminates anyone who needs to work while studying, or who has no travel documentation. This is particularly troubling for the young refugees arriving in Europe who want to start a new life, as many of them will not have identification.

At the most extreme, leaving the EU could mean the introduction of strict controls on the number of foreign students in Britain and where they come from. As Student World Online covered last year, the Conservative government have tightened restrictions on international students, increasing the amount of money they need, the price of otherwise free NHS medical care, and post-study options for students in the UK in order to stem the flow of people settling here. Tuition fees for both domestic and foreign students have also increased drastically in recent years. It seems reasonable to assume that, if the UK leaves the EU, this trend will continue.

What will this mean for universities?

At the moment, the UK receives over 14,000 students from Germany, 11,000 from France, 10,000 each from Greece and Cyprus, and thousands more from Italy, Spain and Eastern Europe.1 Foreign students generate £3.6 billion in tuition fees, comprising 13% of British universities’ income. A decline in international students means a decline in funding, and far smaller adjustments to study abroad regulations have produced significant losses for British universities. Most recently, the 2015 reforms mentioned above have been blamed on a decline in students from India, one of the biggest sources of international students for the UK. A decrease in international students combined with cuts to funding, the eradication of student grants, and competition from cheaper European study destinations, could have a crippling effect on higher education.

It’s clear that, for some groups, the vote to leave the EU was a vote to stop people from entering the UK. As the issue unfolds, young people will begin to ask whether the UK is still the best option for them as international students – a question that could prove very costly to British universities.

Figures obtained from the Global Flow of Tertiary Students, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2016


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