**Updated 29 March 2017**
On June 23 2016, a hotly contested debate on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union culminated in a public vote narrowly in favor of the “leave” campaign. The full implications of the referendum remain uncertain.
On February 1 2017, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favour of the government’s Brexit bill authorizing Prime Minister Theresa May to invoke Article 50. On March 29, May triggered Article 50, by signing a letter to the EU which formally starts the two-year negotiating window.
For now, it’s unlikely there will be any significant changes for students or others until March 2019 when the negotiating window draws to a close.
While much remains unclear, what could Brexit mean for students from the EU, UK and elsewhere?
Will tuition fees and financial aid change?
On 11 October, the government announced that EU students applying to commence studies at English universities in autumn 2017 will remain eligible for the same loans and grants as domestic students. The announcement states that these conditions will apply for the entirety of each student’s course, even if the UK leaves the EU during this time.
On the same day, Student Finance Wales issued a statement confirming that EU students currently in Wales, or commencing studies in the 2017/18 academic year, will likewise remain eligible for the same loans and grants. Several days later, the Scottish government confirmed that it will also maintain current conditions for EU students enrolling in 2017/18, which means no tuition fees at undergraduate level, for the full four years of study. And on 24 March 2017, Deputy First Minister of Scotland John Swinney announced the same is guaranteed for EU students commencing their course in the 2018/19 academic year.
On 1 December 2016, the government announced that EU nationals commencing studies in the 2017/18 academic year will also remain eligible for Research Council studentships. This will apply for the full duration of their course, regardless of whether the UK leaves the EU during this time.
In short: for EU students commencing studies in the 2017/18 academic year, fees and financial aid will remain the same as before the Brexit vote, regardless of when the UK actually leaves the union. Aside from Scotland, the same guarantee is not currently in place for the 2018/19 academic year.
In the longer term, it seems likely that EU students will have to pay the higher fee rates that currently apply to those from outside of the EU. However, those looking on the brighter side have pointed out that the pound’s fall in value, if sustained, will continue to make studying in the UK more affordable for all international students.
Will EU students need to apply for student visas?
With immigration controls so central to the Brexit debate, it is likely that new regulations will be introduced. If the UK withdraws from existing agreements on freedom of movement, future EU students may need to apply for a Tier 4 student visa or a short-term study visa in order to study in the UK.
There could also be more widespread changes to the current student visa system, affecting all international students. In October, home secretary Amber Rudd announced several consultations on student visas, in the context of a series of strategies to reduce overall immigration numbers. She outlined a possible two-tier system, in which “tougher rules” would apply to students enrolling in “lower quality courses”. It is not clear how these proposals would be enacted, and they may not be taken forward, having provoked much criticism from across the political spectrum and from the higher education community.
Do British people want fewer international students in the UK?
Overall, the answer to this question seems to be no. In a public poll conducted by Universities UK in October 2016, 75% of those who expressed a view said they would like the number of international students in the UK to stay the same or increase. In addition, only 24% of survey respondents said they view international students as immigrants, suggesting that students are not usually considered part of the ‘problem’ of high immigration levels.
UK universities are certainly united in the aim of continuing to welcome students and researchers from around the world. More than 100 universities and other organizations have so far joined the #WeAreInternational campaign, which aims to ensure Brexit does not result in fewer international students and academics coming to the UK.
Will EU nationals need a visa to work in the UK?
Currently, the most common visas for working in the UK, including Tier 2 (General), require applicants to have a job offer in place before applying for a visa. If this remains the case, life could become more difficult for EU nationals, who currently do not need a visa to seek work in the UK. However, it is possible the UK will reach some form of compromise on the freedom of movement issue, perhaps by introducing a grace period in which graduates and other EU citizens can search for work within the UK.
How will UK students be affected?
When we spoke to students in June 2016, many UK students said they were concerned Brexit would limit their opportunities to study, travel and work elsewhere in the EU. It’s likely that in future, UK students will face higher fees in many European countries, as they will no longer be eligible for domestic rates. They may also need to apply for student visas, and in some cases may have reduced rights to work during and after their studies. British students will also presumably no longer be eligible for funding via the Erasmus exchange program – or not to the current extent – though UK universities will strive to maintain strong exchange partnerships within and beyond Europe.
Will UK research be affected?
Following the referendum result, British researchers voiced concerns about the potential loss in EU funding – which amounts to almost £1 billion annually. There are also concerns about the potential decline in incoming talent; 16% of researchers at British universities currently come from other EU states, and, in a January 2017 survey of over 1,000 lecturers and professors, three-quarters of continental EU academics in the UK said they are more likely to leave the country following the Brexit vote.
Research partnerships between institutions may also decrease, and – if you listen to the most pessimistic predictions – industry investment could fall, while borrowing may become more difficult (and expensive) for universities and the government.
From the more positive side, the strong reputation, facilities and relationships of UK universities will certainly not disappear overnight, and the UK higher education sector is strongly united in its determination to maintain current levels of opportunity for all students and faculty members. No doubt the nation’s universities and students – both domestic and international – will be important voices in the discussions yet to come.
This article was originally published on 29 June 2016. It was updated on 4 November 2016, 19 December 2016 and again on 29 March 2017.