Does ‘Brexit’ spell the end for European student mobility?

Much of the news in recent times has been focused on one, single issue: should the U.K. remain in the EU? With notable figures spearheading both the ‘In’ and ‘Out’ campaigns (at the time of writing, London Mayor Boris Johnson has just declared for the ‘Out’ camp) it seems that much of the debate has been based around how the major politicians will align themselves before the referendum on 23rd June.

However, how will the decision actually affect people, and in particular, students?

The U.K. is one of the most sought after education destinations in the world; according to the ONS, there are over 50,000 students from the EU here, let alone from the wider international community. To compound the interdependence of the British and European education institutions, many U.K. nationals choose to spread their wings and study abroad, with well over a third of them travelling to the EU – more than go to prestigious American universities.

So, just how would ‘Brexit’ affect them?

As yet, the ‘Out’ campaign has given no clear indication whether or not it would seek to remain in the European Economic Area (EEA) or not. As the EEA requires free movement of personnel, one of the major sticking points for those who believe Britain should break away, it looks unlikely. That means any EU students seeking to study in the UK would be liable to pay up to double the fees they currently do – an astronomical rise. Coupled with the rise in fees under the coalition government, EU students may well face a six-fold increase in fees in under ten years. Naturally, this has the real possibility of reducing student numbers, but with over 40% of doctoral students in the U.K. being from overseas, surely the priority would be to uphold the tradition of attracting the world’s brightest minds to our shores?


Oxford University – Just one place that may become unreachable. © 2005-03-15 Kaihsu Tai

And for Brits studying abroad? Universities would be not be constrained to EU rules on charging EU students the same as domestic ones, meaning access to a plethora of exciting and horizon-broadening experiences may be cut as fees increase, especially for those on lower incomes.

Of course, unilateral agreements could be negotiated with individual countries. However, this would not only be a slow process but may not even happen. With many in the ‘Out’ campaign arguing for stronger ties to the Commonwealth, the opportunity to study in those countries may arise, and despite the clear strengths of some Commonwealth universities, the disparity in quantity and quality between them and what is available in Europe is clear.

The numbers of non-EU students studying in Britain is undoubtedly high – high fees has clearly not discouraged everyone from applying. The concern would be that a new system may simply prevent those dependent on state-help from achieving their potential. A divorce from the EU would seemingly also divorce the UK from the aim of achieving equality of opportunity, regardless of financial situation.

Text by Brad Caton-Garrett