“Minus 27” and “Minus 1” – in times like these you need not be a mathematical whizz-kid to understand the meaning behind these arithmetic operations. Twenty-seven places to live, love, study and work could be lost for Britain‘s youth. While not shutting the door entirely, Brexit and those who voted for it have pulled up the drawbridge, most likely taking away many of the privileges enjoyed by past generations.
For those in mainland Europe, the loss of the UK is just as severe. It’s only one country and we have got 27 left in the European Union, one could argue. But that would be to ignore the reality of what has been happening in Europe; Brexit has torn apart the Continent. While it is perfectly possible to survive with one country cut off, the reality of having to do so is grim, bitter and extraordinarily disappointing. While it’s still too early to tell what consequences the UK’s exit will really have, one does not need to be overly imaginative to see that the current state of affairs – regardless of who is ultimately to blame for it – will leave students on both sides worse off, beginning with the possible withdrawal of free movement and presumably ending with higher fees for both sides.
Admittedly, I don’t expect the exchange of academics and students to ebb completely. No one with a sane mind would think, let alone want, that. So I do wonder why anyone should be in favour of changing something that has been working well over the past decades. It makes no sense. EU membership has provided both sides with a stable and functioning framework in which everyone could flourish. The referendum has shaken this system to its very foundations. What we are left with is uncertainty.
The UK leaving the EU is a particularly bitter development for German students. Despite the costs and the tough application process, about 7,500 of us head to the UK every year to take up our studies. Up to now, we represent the largest group of students from EU countries in the UK. While this is unquestionably down to the excellent reputation of British universities, Germans have always felt particularly drawn to Britain. Why exactly this is the case, I am probably the wrong person to tell you (blame it on the Royal Family and British humour) but it only emphasises the point that I am trying to make. The UK leaving the EU hits us in Germany, perhaps more than anyone else in mainland Europe.
Most interesting, however, is what Theresa May’s appointment as prime minister will mean for students and universities. Her track record, in my view, does not bode well for what is to come. May has been a supporter of the controversial decision to raise the tuition fee cap to £9,000, a policy that has been affecting both home and EU students. While one should certainly not extrapolate past behaviour into the future, May’s premiership could likely see us with further mark-ups. What is more, nobody knows whether EU students will continue to pay the same fees as home students.
Another important point to consider is May’s general stance on the future of international students studying in the UK. Since the referendum, May has failed to guarantee that those without British citizenship will not be deported. The threat of using EU citizens in the UK as bargaining chips in future Brexit negotiations won’t do much to dispel doubts over her commitment to grant them a future in the UK. Given the uncertainty regarding their prospects, it would not surprise me if many well-educated graduates who would have turned to the British job market under normal conditions and would have done their bit to contribute to Britain’s economy, will now try their luck elsewhere. Recruiters on the Continent are already rubbing their hands at the prospect of so many bright minds seeking employment back home.
Admittedly, it is true that the referendum will not stop Germans from studying in Britain, but our number is likely to dwindle as soon as fees and bureaucratic hurdles increase. In the future, those going to the UK will predominantly be from a wealthy elite; students from less well-to-do German households are likely to shun British universities; after all there are more affordable places such as the Netherlands as a fallback option. I, for one, am lucky. I will be studying in the UK as of September – perhaps as one of the last EU students with the old regulations still in place. Before the referendum, I had dreamed of continuing my education in the UK and of settling permanently in a country whose people and culture I not only tremendously respect, but outright admire. Whether I can afford to stick to that plan, given the uncertainty that is to come in the following months and years, remains to be seen.