The following was submitted as evidence to the Education Committee, a Select Committee of the House of Commons, in November 2016, as part of a government inquiry into the impact of Brexit on higher education.
Erasmus Student Network UK is a collective of student organisations who work to encourage and facilitate student mobility and cultural exchange at 21 universities across the United Kingdom. As we are part of a network - one of the biggest student organisations in Europe - we have been able to discuss these issues with young people from across Europe, as well as with our own UK organisations and volunteers. We are uniquely placed to make comments based on our own work, experience and discussion. Much of our submission centres on student mobility; we are all returned exchange students and we believe these voices need to be heard.
In this submission, we cover the following areas:
- Risks and opportunities for UK students.
- The future of the Erasmus+ programme.
- The likely impact of the UK exiting the EU on EU students studying in England.
- Already, inequality exists with regards to which UK students actually study abroad. Through our own work, we recognise that the lack of clarity around Brexit is already impacting upon students' willingness to undertake a mobility period within their higher education cycle.
- Those most at risk of missing out on this experience are students from less well-off and/or minority backgrounds.
- The "opportunities" of more extra-European higher education exchange partnerships will serve to cement mobility as a luxury for wealthy students, as no standardised financial support is offered.
- Having consulted our colleagues in Erasmus+ partner countries, who are not fully part of the programme, we know that students in this position face significantly greater barriers to mobility; less funding, fewer opportunities and more complex application systems. There is often increased financial expense to the state, the HEI or the student.
- Our member consultations have shown that current EU students already feel alienated from what is meant to be an inclusive university system.
- EU students are some of the most mobile students at English universities; they want to study abroad as part of their degree. If their study abroad options are diminished in the wake of Brexit, this will also serve to make the UK a less attractive destination for international students.
- We would urge the government to take all possible steps to guarantee participation in European mobility programmes and to guarantee funding for staff, students and institutions.
Risks and opportunities for UK students
As an organisation dedicated to student exchange, we are very concerned about the risks posed to UK student mobility as a result of the UK's exit from the European Union. We preface this by noting that the benefits of a period spent studying or working abroad are self-evident; returning exchange students perform better academically, are more employable, more culturally aware, more adaptable and in a better position to question systems at home with a view to improving them, due to exposure and interaction with other environments. Returned exchange students and incoming exchange students alike truly enrich our society.
Already, a massive disparity exists regarding who actually has the opportunity to study or work abroad. UK universities generally have three distinct groups within the student population: international students (anyone from outside the UK), domestic non-home students (students from the UK who have moved away from home to attend university) and home students. In our experience of working at a variety of UK universities, international students are the most likely to study abroad, followed by domestic non-home students, with home students coming in last. In addition to this, evidence shows that wealthier students and white students are significantly more likely to study abroad.
As a network, we are doing everything we can to alleviate this lack of will to engage in international experiences and to break down the barriers to mobility, real or perceived. Our most significant contribution in this area is through our implementation of Mov'in Europe, a project championed by ESN International, whose goal is to encourage local students to work or study abroad. ESN volunteers run events and campaigns across the country to dispel myths about studying abroad and raise awareness of the financial, linguistic and pastoral support offered through the Erasmus+ programme and by UK universities. However, in recent months, we have noticed a distinct decrease in students' certainty levels about this kind of support; even when we are able to assure them that funding is guaranteed for the next couple of years, the word "Brexit" punctuates every conversation and works against our campaign for the widespread uptake of student mobility opportunities.
In our own experience, UK students are less likely to speak a second language than other young Europeans, they have little knowledge about the EU and they are largely uninformed about Erasmus+ funding opportunities for which they are eligible. In short, they are unaware of their own potential for mobility - we see this in our work every day. UK students are already disadvantaged by the somewhat insular mindset which has erected cultural barriers to mobility, and the looming uncertainty regarding the UK's inclusion in the Erasmus+ programme is exacerbating this problem. UK students are at risk of becoming even more detached from the benefits of our international agreements, and it is entirely likely that those who will be most impacted are those already at risk of entirely eschewing mobility opportunities: British students from less wealthy and minority backgrounds. This is unacceptable - it deepens inequality and deprives young Brits of the truly transformative opportunity of a mobile and varied education.
We do not see any significant opportunities here for UK students. Much of the rhetoric around Brexit has highlighted the potential for new extra-EU trade deals, will the same be said of higher education mobility partnerships? This will serve only to cement the idea that studying abroad is a privilege for the wealthy; non-European exchange programmes currently offer no standardised financial support to students whatsoever, and in many cases students actually have to show evidence of access to thousands of pounds to even be considered for a student visa to attend extra-European exchange universities. We believe that mobility is a lifestyle, not the reserve of the rich. Exiting the EU and the uncertainty this raises concerning the Erasmus+ programme brings only risks and no opportunities for UK students with regards to mobility.
The likely impact of the UK exiting the EU on EU students studying in England
Over 125,000 EU students are currently enrolled at UK universities. In the future, these students could face massive logistical and personal hurdles in attending UK universities, traditionally viewed amongst the best by graduating school students across much of Europe.
The UK's uncertain relationship with the EU and connected programs, such as Erasmus+, will undoubtedly make EU students considering study at UK universities think twice and possibly reevaluate the benefits against the new barriers to access and increased difficulty of establishing temporary residence. These potential barriers and deterrents include the possibility of the lack of Erasmus+ support and funding in the near future, depending on the UK's membership after 2020. Indeed, both short- and long-term impact needs to be considered in light of Brexit and the full extent of its implications for the logistics of international mobility within Europe.
One long-term impact could be a brain drain from UK universities in isolation and its impact on the quality of study they offer in comparison to increasingly comparable European alternatives and international alternatives. The other side of this is that EU scholars and upcoming young talent may choose to pursue careers and their education within more closely-linked European institutions, and if the UK becomes detached and isolated from this pool of learning and creativity, it may have longer-term consequences for the UK's ability to not only attract but produce excellent research and courses. This could, in the long run, also have consequences for the ratings of UK universities and thereby affect their appeal to foreign students, EU and international alike.
Having spoken with current EU students - those who are studying permanently in the UK, as well as those on their exchange to UK universities - it has become apparent that many view the UK's decision to leave the EU as an inevitable decrease in access to a system which previously they had felt a part of. They now perceive their position in the UK higher education system as being riddled with uncertainty and recognise a likelihood of having to leave the UK, against their wishes, upon graduation.
This perception of UK society and universities as more unwelcoming and not as culturally open as before, given the rise in xenophobia and anti-EU citizen/migrant rhetoric, could negatively affect EU students who in the future will be considering where to study. This could also lead to a decrease in inclusiveness and diversity at UK universities, which in turn could harm their reputation and appeal. Further, the socio-economic factors could have, in particular, an influence on less wealthy students, who might no longer be able to justify even more expensive tuition fees, just to study at a UK university. This kind of thinking could skew the pool of applicants more in favour of the fortunate, especially given the potential for tuition fees to increase considerably, if EU students are reclassified as international students.
Wider factors exist which exchange students, both within the Erasmus+ programme and from other international destinations, may take into account when deciding where to study abroad, like access to other EU countries, the visa process and general mobility around Europe. In addition, it must be considered that UK universities receive considerable funding from EU programmes. There has been confirmation that "regardless of the result of the referendum, British universities are and remain an essential part of the European family of universities, which extends beyond EU borders. This community of knowledge and learning is strong and longstanding, and it will surely overcome this crisis, although the questions and consequences of the British exit are certainly formidable. EUA will continue to work with and for British universities. The Europe of universities will not be divided!". This, however, does not fully guarantee or secure that UK universities will continue to be able to attract the same caliber of EU students, if their study abroad is increasingly expensive and logistically difficult.
The future of the Erasmus+ programme following the UK's exit from the EU
The future of the Erasmus+ programme in the UK and for UK students is of course now uncertain. We remain optimistic that there will be no major changes before the end of the programme cycle in 2020, and, therefore, our organisation intends to follow our fixed objectives relating to promoting Erasmus+ opportunities until 2020. Although details of how the Erasmus+ programme will evolve post-2020 are not yet clear, we hope that the UK will continue to participate actively and fully in European mobility initiatives.
In the wake of the referendum result, we consultered our ESN colleagues from Erasmus+ partner countries, including Switzerland and Western Balkans countries, to explore possible scenarios should the UK cease to be a programme country. We found that students in partner countries face considerably more obstacles to study abroad, with fewer places and less funding available. The consensus across our network was that all possible steps should be taken in order to secure UK participation in European mobility programmes, for the sake of our young people, who predominantly voted to remain in the EU, and who stand to lose the most from the restriction of movement and educational opportunities.
We see future full participation in the Erasmus+ programme as being contingent on the continuation of free movement of persons between the UK and the EU, as the link between the programme and free movement has often been made clear. Following Switzerland's change of immigration rules in 2014, and subsequent suspension of Switzerland's programme country status, our colleagues from ESN Switzerland have reported that students are generally more reluctant to participate in mobility programmes, citing complicated application processes and funding as their main concerns.
The Erasmus Student Network UK therefore submits that in the instance of withdrawal from the Erasmus+ programme, we expect to see an increasing lack in motivation for students wanting to not only go abroad but also to come to the UK. We urge the government to secure our involvement in Erasmus+, by guaranteeing that funding currently provided through the scheme will continue to be offered to students, staff and institutions.
More generally for higher education, our universities' partnerships with other European institutions will be at risk, and the quality of research and potential collaborations between institutions may also be affected. ESN UK remains optimistic that the British government and the European Commission will not turn a blind eye to the extensive benefits the Erasmus+ programme brings to students both in the UK and across Europe. We truly hope that this Committee will demonstrate strong support for the continuation of UK participation in the remainder of the Erasmus+ programme, and in its successor programme.