Brexit might have been inevitable, but isolation should not be

Studying in Germany during the Brexit process as a British student is like ‘trying to order a meal in a restaurant five minutes before closing’, writes student Patrick Brighty

May 14 2019

To describe studying in Europe during the Brexit process as a bizarre experience would be an understatement. It’s a bit like trying to order a meal in a restaurant five minutes before closing.

Brexit has, however, served as an ice-breaker and an excuse to practice my German while I’m on my year abroad at the Free University of Berlin. Much of this year has been spent trying to be self-deprecating, laughing along with other students as the butt of the joke.

I’ve been spending the majority of my exchange explaining that not everybody voted (I did) and not everyone voted the right way (Remain). American students on exchange have found the Brexit process a comforting validation for their own domestic political situation. I’m glad for them. Jokes aside, from interacting with students I get the impression many students consider our reputation on the European level irreparably damaged.

In general, the European Union feels so intertwined with everyday life here that to be without it would be incomprehensible. Germans have always been more engaged with the EU – the European election feels like a general election. This is reflected in the election turnout.

During the 2014 European elections, the turnout in Germany was 48.1 per cent, while in the UK it was only 35.6 per cent. Compare that to the UK’s voter turnout of 68.7 per cent during the 2017 general election and it explains our historic lack of engagement with politics at the European level.

Maybe Brexit was inevitable. But what doesn’t have to be inevitable is disconnection or isolation.

If a post-Brexit climate necessitates individual relationships with European countries, it can only further underline the importance of studying languages to degree-level. I’d like to stress that studying languages at university is a lot more flexible than many may realise. I’m a German and history student, and languages are generally offered in joint honours degrees with other subjects. Languages ab initio are also increasingly common.

Studying abroad is an essential part of the course – long may it continue if we are to be an outward-looking nation. Even if you think being part of the EU is bad, being isolated from other countries cannot be a good thing, so we should keep the Erasmus scheme.

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Some 53 per cent of all UK university students who study abroad, do so through Erasmus. The viability of a study abroad placement for many is predicated on obtaining the funding, for me this was no different. It would therefore be a grave shame if we removed the “home-fee status” of EU students studying in the UK post-Brexit.

Regardless of Brexit, studying abroad has given me a far greater appreciation of the student experience in the UK. My home university is the University of Warwick and it being a campus university probably plays a part in this. I’ve found the Free University of Berlin a comparatively anonymous experience at times.

Support services are available, however, I only began to appreciate what great pastoral care is after attending the Warwick German department’s residential to Schloss Dhaun. Designed to offer support during the halfway mark of the year abroad, it helped sharpen our focus for the oncoming final year.

With the exception of a few coffee shops, I have struggled to find the student bars and clubs which usually create the social framework of our universities. Conversations I’ve had with German friends reiterate this; the student culture seems to be far more common in the UK than in Germany.

I would argue that making a fool of yourself in your second language is an important life experience. My funniest experience this year has to be training at my local table tennis club in Neukölln. Despite being the only person under 40, I was by far the worst player. I think a couple of the players had underestimated my ability to speak German, as I overheard them complaining about my participation to the coach. Most however were lovely, which reiterates the importance of trying to integrate on the year abroad.

Whatever the outcome of Brexit, I can only see a future for the Erasmus scheme if we offer reciprocal benefits for European students in the UK. Trying to be more global at the expense of all of our established connections would be a betrayal of both students and the institutions that rely on them, and almost certainly affect British students’ opportunities to study in the EU.

Read more: How is Brexit affecting higher education?


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