How much longer will EU PhD students be left in Brexit limbo?

Left with an inconclusive residency application, Alexandra Bulat asks when the government will end the double act of praising EU students while leaving their futures in the UK uncertain

September 4, 2018
Group limbo dance
Source: Alamy

It’s 30 May 2018 and it’s my 24th birthday. I’m working at a summer school during my second year of PhD studies, and I go outside for a short break to get some fresh air and check my emails. There’s only one unread email in my personal account – it’s from the Home Office. It tells me that the UK government has refused my permanent residence application. Happy birthday to me. 

My first reaction to the refusal email was anger. I had wasted a significant amount of money on a tight student budget with application fees, printing, postage and other costs. 

It took me more than a week, fitting in time between paid work and PhD fieldwork, to put together my application. The paperwork ended up weighing more than 2kg. My full bank statement dating back to 2012 is likely heavier than my final PhD thesis will be.

Thinking about the email, I realised that the situation I am in illustrates a lot of what is wrong with the Home Office and how it is treating European Union citizens who want to continue their lives in the UK. 

For starters, the Home Office did not communicate well with GPs or universities the law requiring all EU citizens in the UK who are self-employed or not in work to have comprehensive sickness insurance. It was something that almost all my EU student and self-sufficient friends found out after the referendum on EU membership. 

When I registered with GPs in both Brighton and Cambridge, I asked if I needed to provide any information other than the basic details. Their only response was “welcome to the UK”, not “show your CSI evidence”. 

Even though I didn’t know then that I needed it, luckily I did have CSI evidence: initially from Romania, then private insurance in the UK. This went into my residency application, but it was not “enough evidence”, I was told by my rejection email. Exactly what was unsatisfactory about this part of my application I do not know, because I have not received a decision letter with these details.

This highlights another shortcoming of the Home Office: although it’s requesting commercial fees for applications, it has very poor customer service. After my rejection email at the end of May, I heard nothing from the government until 13 June, when a package containing 2kg of my original documents arrived home, alongside a replaced registration certificate dated 2018. To my surprise, included in the package was a document saying that I now had right of permanent residence.

I sought clarification immediately, especially because no decision letter had been sent to me. I’ve had no reply to my request. Even my MP’s caseworker, who also asked for clarification, has had no response so far.

While the situation does not change my aspiration to continue in UK academia, it does leave me disappointed. I listened to countless political speeches praising EU students and academics. I heard the referendum campaign promises that nothing would change for EU citizens living in the UK. I received several updates from the Home Office settled status mailing list, underlining how EU citizens make a “huge” contribution. 

But the reality is I’m left dealing with a lack of communication from the Home Office, no official letter confirming the status of my residency and confusion about why my application hasn’t been accepted. 

I fear I may not be the only one. Early career researchers usually speak about uncertainty in the context of the changing graduate job market, but Brexit adds an extra layer to that uncertainty, particularly for those who are citizens of another EU country. 

The current situation could make it easier to choose a postdoc job in a different country, especially when we read story after story about academics being told to leave the UK.

EU citizens were even promised the CSI rules wouldn’t be valid when applying for the not-yet-implemented “settled status” system, should we wish to remain in the UK post-Brexit. 

The political promises to automatically grant all rights at no cost have now become this proposed system, in which EU citizens need to apply and pay a fee, with some rights still being negotiated. With a little more than six months until we’re scheduled to leave the EU, there are still more than 100 unanswered questions about the settled status system.

Some EU academics have left the UK, others have plans to leave. But for those early career researchers such as me, who wish to stay and contribute to the rich academic traditions of the UK, our rights have been in limbo for almost 800 days. The question is: how much longer will we wait? And why are politicians praising EU students and academics, while simultaneously forcing them into a future of uncertainty?

Alexandra Bulat is a PhD candidate at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL. 

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Reader's comments (3)

The only explanation for these continued stories of the appalling incompetence of the Home Office is that it is deliberate. They are not incompetent they are following official guidelines which encourage delays, obfuscation, and poor communication.
Sorry mate, I mean no disrespect. Non-EU academics and research students have it worse. Well, you are not asked to comply with monthly attendance and engagement requirements as non-EU research students are required to do every 4 weeks. Non-EU research students have it worse whether renewing visa, travelling to their home countries, working.. almost everything. The misery of studying under the threat of deportation every day is depressing.
"To my surprise, included in the package was a document claiming I now have right of permanent residence"- that's it then- you have always had permanent right of residence in the UK!

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