Christmas decorations seem to be appearing earlier every year, but in the UK the festive sales are not the only arena where competition is fierce in 2019. For the first time since 1923, a general election is taking place in December, largely because of the political deadlock that has ensued following the Brexit referendum. This early election was called for by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose declared purpose and mission is to “get Brexit done.”
Exiting the EU is becoming an increasingly real prospect for many Britons. But, to others, so long as there is a chance to fight its viability, or to mitigate its feared negative effects, action will continue to be taken. Even those who think the country must go ahead and start disentangling from the EU, the shape of this disentanglement is far from clear. To them and their opponents on the matter, life after Brexit continues to be plagued by much uncertainty.
In universities, Brexit updates feature in a steady stream of administrative communications to students and staff, including reassurances whenever these are possible. To prospective students, however, many unknowns make basic yet important decisions very difficult.
Students from EU countries who are currently studying in the UK are constantly worried about their right to reside, study and work or receive grants and scholarships in the UK. While the majority of EU students’ concerns primarily affect life after the end of their studies, for some, concerns are relevant even during ongoing courses. Earlier this year, the Department of Education assured EU students studying in the UK that they would continue to be charged university fees at the rate of home students (rather than the much higher rates for international students), and that they would remain eligible for the same funding privileges, so long as they are enrolled by 2020-2021. Still, other variables continue to introduce uncertainty. Visa arrangements and costs, guarantees to fulfill financial needs throughout the duration of studies, and what would happen in the eventuality of unforeseeable circumstances and potential interruptions are but a few of the worrying factors.
Whether an increase in restrictions might affect students from the Middle East particularly negatively may well depend on the future government and its ethos with respect to the region and its various components.
Once the UK’s disentanglement from the EU takes place, and unless special provisions are made for students from EU countries, future students will be liable to pay the high international student fees — the difference in cost currently stands somewhere between £18,000 ($23,000) and £48,000 for a three-year undergraduate degree. On another important matter, if the ceasing of freedom of movement is implemented in one of its stricter forms, then EU students are likely to require visas and work permits to be able to enter the UK and support themselves with part-time work.
To prospective international students from outside the EU, whether studying in the UK would be a career-enhancing move or a decision to regret is a question they must consider carefully. The uncertainties that affect international students are many and varied. Most foundational are visa regulations, financial cost and future work prospects. Because of space limitations, my focus here is on the visa issue, which is rarely discussed.
While, in theory, visa changes will only affect EU students, the prediction that all non-EU students will be unaffected by Brexit is unrealistic. If the patterns of visa regulation changes over the past few years are anything to go by, then it would be reasonable to expect an increase of limits on granted visas, be it in terms of visa types or other factors, due to sheer number limitations. In other words, if the UK wants to limit the number of foreign individuals entering the country, then there will almost certainly be a cap on student visas, which means more restrictions and fewer visa stamps.
Whether an increase in restrictions might affect students from the Middle East particularly negatively may well depend on the future government and its ethos with respect to the region and its various components. At the very least, any potential effects on prospective Middle Eastern students would be determined, to no small degree, by security policies relevant to the region and its constituent countries.
Limiting the number of post-Brexit student visas would, of course, be a double-edged sword, given the cash and other benefits international students bring to the country. The new government would have to weigh the potential gains and losses on this matter. Competing party leaders are currently announcing their respective parties’ election pledges, and migration is a major question the public expect each candidate to address. Second to Brexit, the electorate is concerned with national insurance (and other taxes), the National Health Service (health care), and education, among other important issues. Almost independently of who you ask, questions about migration seem to find their way into the political debate through any of the major issues.
Given the uncertainties and the pressing priorities awaiting the incoming government, a clearly articulated policy toward international students will require some time to take shape. Hopeful Middle Eastern students, in the meantime, may be facing the same uncertainties as students from other countries. It is also possible their chances of studying in the UK might become a casualty of an unsympathetic government, if only because their place within a dramatically uncertain political landscape falls low on its list of priorities.
Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo” (OUP, 2018). She is currently Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London and Associate Fellow of Pierson College at Yale.