By Caroline Cox, a German-American transatlantic transplant in her second year of International Relations at King’s College London.
For the past few months, the possible UK exit from the European Union has been a hotly debated topic. Speculation on the consequences of a possible Brexit include its effect on human rights, women’s rights, food growth and distribution, and continued peace in Northern Ireland, but what would a Brexit mean for students? Considering that those aged 18-24 have the lowest voter turnout in the UK, the student population is not the first affected area that comes to mind when discussing the upcoming EU referendum. However, the effect on students would be much more far-reaching than just EU students seeking a UK university education, and would extend to home students as well as the universities themselves.
The UK Home Office has been cracking down on international students for some time now. For example, non-EU students used to have a post-study work period of two years after graduation included on their Tier 4 student visas, specifically to be able to work in the UK before either applying for a Tier 5 work visa or returning home. However, this period was shortened to four months in 2012, so international students are more likely not to work in the UK after graduation. Home Secretary, Theresa May, has continually made new proposals to further restrict foreign students from entering and staying in the UK, including the proposal to set the financial backing threshold for international students seeking a visa even higher than it is now. EU students typically have an easier time as EU member countries have a free flow of human capital for both university education and work. A Brexit would mean an end to protection against such restrictions for EU students and the UK would see less EU traffic in the higher education system.
Non-EU international students pay more tuition than EU and home students, so only students from a certain background can actually come to the UK. EU students are not necessarily constrained by this and therefore contribute greatly to on-campus diversity. Not only would EU students have a more difficult time getting a UK university education as a result of the Brexit, but home students would have even less diversity on campus which would further contribute to the UK’s isolationist tendencies. UK universities rely on the EU for both students and funding, so a Brexit would mean fewer students, less money, and a less competitive, stimulating atmosphere in higher education. It also means that foreign students who do study in the UK are less likely to get a job in the UK afterwards, which means the UK has invested time and education in these students without the benefit of having them in the workforce after graduation. Decreasing opportunities for international students working in the UK also impacts UK towns and local business by removing talented, educated, and qualified people from the employable pool thus limiting employer resources.
Systematically excluding international students from studying in the UK is damaging to the UK in the long run as it encourages problematic nationalism and isolationism, and a Brexit would only expedite the process. The UK is already geographically isolated from the rest of Europe and has a history of stressing its separateness from “the Continent,” so a Brexit would serve to deepen the real or perceived difference felt by many. A Brexit would mean a damper on the cultural diversity seen on UK campuses, which would contribute further to the already elitist air around higher education that is present and also would contribute to the vicious cycle of isolationist nationalism.