While voting for Brexit was never motivated by consideration for those not from the UK, universities are arguably a different playing field. On the 23rd of June, the Conservative government finally ended the ambiguous position in which many EU agreements were left in a state of suspension, and made a statement confirming what we all suspected: as of 2021, newly enrolling students from the European Union/European Economic Area will be subject to international status. This means they will no longer have access to home fees, to a loan from the Student Loans Company (SLC), or to a bursary from the university. This measure will have damaging effects for a myriad of actors, including EU students, universities, and, to a lesser extent, the UK as a whole.
According to the University of Oxford, 43% of its entire student body is international. This might be surprising for many whose image of Oxford is an extremely Anglocentric one, whose experience of it is populated by mostly white and often London-based students. However, this impression isn’t fully inaccurate- the aforementioned number is inflated by the (often more reclusive) graduate students; only 20% of undergraduates are from outside of the UK- and half of those are from the EU.
The myth of the wealthy international student in the UK is a prevalent and pervasive one. Without a British accent, you are immediately presumed to be extremely wealthy- able to finance a decadent life abroad. This stems from the fact that being an international student is quite costly- often prohibitively so. If you do the math, tuition at the University of Oxford for undergraduate students outside of the UK and the EU/EEA ranges from £25,740 to £36,065. Then, there are the costs that are not commonly considered, such as air travel, or purchasing items which home students could easily bring from home (like pillows, a kettle, etc). Furthermore, these cannot be alleviated through any form of financial support from the government or the university.
However, people often fail to consider a subset of international students who might not fit this description of the affluent international: those from the EU/EEA. These are students who, albeit privileged, are often not more so than the average UK student. They might not be able to study in the UK with ease. This is especially the case in the wake of the Euro Debt Crisis of 2009, which had a debilitating economic impact on countries such as Greece, Portugal, and Spain, and which is still being felt potently today. The impending economic consequences of COVID-19 might be just as destructive.
With Brexit, EU students lose any financial aid. It makes sense that without the economic alliance which bound the UK to other European countries, it would be “morally and legally difficult” to continue giving EU students preferential treatment, as Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, argued. However, Hillman has also predicted that these measures “could risk a decline of about 60% in the number of EU students coming to the UK to study”. He qualifies this by stating that “history suggests that the education on offer in our universities is something people are willing to pay for”, but he fails to see that after a certain point, it is not a matter of whether you are willing, but rather whether you are able. As much as we might try, we cannot will an additional £20,000 into our possession.
Here, there is a clash of priorities. As an educational institution, Oxford (as well as other UK universities) has both a primary responsibility to UK citizens, as well as the role of educating, cultivating, and providing opportunities to the bright minds of the world, in the hopes that this will make them capable of one day making an impact. The former priority is often reinforced by the argument that UK taxpayers should not be expected to support non-UK students. However, this does not hold up well when one invokes the counterargument that many of these students stay on in the UK; in 2011, 54,045 students switched from a study visa to another visa (such as a work visa) to be able to remain in the country. It is undeniable that the UK is a beneficiary of the brain drain that plagues many other countries today. While Oxford disseminates placating claims such as that “our staff and students from all across the world are as warmly welcome as ever”, we have yet to get a clear statement or policy which addresses how they intend to continue supporting these students. It is not enough to merely “welcome them” if they cannot arrive here in the first place. On the latter priority, a less diverse university environment can only harm these institutions in their role as authorities of knowledge and its development. Ultimately, Oxford has never had any qualms about claiming credit for the achievements of their foreign notable alumni, be it political leaders such as Benazir Bhutto, writers like Vikram Seth, and more recently, Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.
For many, being able to study abroad is a lifeline. Students are given opportunities they would not have had in their home countries: the ability to study their subject with a near unlimited access to books and resources, better links to employers (in Greece, youth unemployment stands at 35.6%), and much more. Many use this knowledge and bring it back to their own countries, and thus can improve and contribute to society back home. Since these announcements, I have witnessed several parents distraught over their children’s future prospects- even parents with children only 14 years old. For many, the function of an overseas tertiary education cannot be overstated. Many of us might be considered “traitors” for this; I was recently informed by a fellow compatriot in the Facebook comment section of a Guardian article that I am “the worst type of Greek”. It is true that many still have access to an education in other European countries, such as the Netherlands, Italy, or France, however these offer considerably fewer English-speaking courses, and the language barrier is definitely an important consideration, even just in daily life. Furthermore, with English being such a widely spoken language, so many people have learned it explicitly because it would allow us to escape the confines of our own countries.
The system is already imbalanced. It is impossible to justify why EU students should get benefits over other overseas ones, or why the privileged EU students should get more opportunities, or – even on a domestic level – why students from prestigious private schools should get in at higher rates than those from underfunded state schools. However, this measure merely serves to decrease the net level of accessibility for students, which seems unwise and counterproductive in approaching this inequality.
Universities should embrace an ethos of openness, and institute measures which will continue to ensure that students from around the world can still afford to come and study. Under the UK Equality Act, to continue to charge home fees to EU students could be discriminatory. However, perhaps this inevitable period of change will provide the necessary impetus for furthering these reforms: increasing the number and value of scholarships on offer for international students, or maintaining their commitment to offering financial aid to such students, potentially taking this chance to extend it to those outside the EU too. Still, it is worth noting that Oxford stands to gain £10 million a year in fee income through this measure, which reveals an important profit consideration.
The vote for Brexit already has an alienating impact on foreigners in the UK, revealing deep-seated antipathies for that which is ‘other’. So, if Oxford (among others), is as committed as they claim to “remain a thriving, cosmopolitan community of scholars and students”, they should put their money where their mouth is.