Year abroad students from UK ‘struggling to return to EU’

Covid-19 and Brexit have created perfect storm, with confusion over paperwork and whether study abroad is deemed essential travel

January 15, 2021
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UK students who are on a year abroad have been left in limbo as coronavirus-related travel restrictions and Brexit cause chaos and confusion.

Study abroad coordinators at UK universities told Times Higher Education that some students were refused re-entry into Europe after the Christmas holidays, while others were struggling to ascertain which documents they needed to return or were paying large sums to obtain the right paperwork at short notice. They added that while universities in Europe had largely moved to remote learning, many institutions still required students to register in person.

The European Commission has said that Erasmus+ funding will be paid to students for only the period during which they are living in the host country, and not if they are studying or working remotely, meaning that some students might have to repay a portion of their grant.

Julia Waters, a year abroad coordinator in the department of languages and cultures at the University of Reading, said some students on Spanish courses were turned away at the airport in the UK despite having all the paperwork purportedly required. They were told that because they were no longer European Union citizens, they were no longer exempt from the national ban on all but essential travel.

However, the European Commission website says “third-country nationals travelling for the purposes of study” are exempt from the temporary travel restrictions to the EU.

A joint honours student who remained in Spain during the Christmas holidays but is due to travel to Germany for the coming semester was told that she must return to the UK in order to apply for a visa to Germany. Meanwhile, students undertaking courses or working in France were receiving “mixed messages” about whether they needed to obtain a visa and residency card, Professor Waters said. She added that about 20 of the 69 Reading students who are on their year abroad this year have so far contacted her with issues but “this may be just the tip of the iceberg”.

“The information on the FCDO [the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office] website is unclear, out of date and provisional – lots of ‘you may need’ guidance and links to other government websites that contradict FCDO advice,” she said.

“This is affecting all UK students on study abroad placements this academic year. These poor students, who are still in receipt of Erasmus funding, are guinea pigs in the government’s great ‘sovereignty experiment’.”

Ruth Whittle, senior lecturer in German studies at the University of Birmingham, said many embassies are now closed and students are unable to get a visa. UK students now also must prove that they have £5,000 to obtain an EU visa, meaning that the issue was “hitting widening participation students more”, she said.

Two students at one UK institution said they had each paid €335 (£300) in legal and translation fees just to receive the documents needed to return to Spain.

Hilary Potter, year abroad coordinator for German at Royal Holloway, University of London, said the languages department had advised students to stay in their host country over Christmas if possible, or return by 31 December, but students were now struggling to obtain the correct documentation to remain in the EU.

“Information coming through prior to Brexit was very piecemeal to non-existent. Now, there seems to be no clear picture of what [students] need or where they go for documents. There was no discussion about how this was going to be managed as far as I’m aware,” she said.

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Reader's comments (1)

Last minute Johnson and his colleagues, who were so keen on Brexit, are to blame for the uncertainty this has created for UK students studying overseas. Like Scottish fishermen and food exporters to Northern Ireland, additional cost and disruption is heaped onto British citizens. Let's hope this can be sorted quickly.


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