Brexit Fears Loom Large

Universities and international students caught in the political crossfire of British divorce from the EU

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File photograph shows an employee walking over a mosaic depicting pound sterling symbols on the floor of the front hall of the Bank of England in LondBritain’s decision to leave the European Union, commonly known as “Brexit,” has made many current and prospective international students feel concerned about graduating from a British university with potentially worse-off prospects.

In a televised interview last week, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May said she would trigger Article 50, a clause of the Lisbon treaty that must be invoked to start the Brexit negotiation process, by the end of next March. With a two-year negotiation period, the move signifies that Britain is likely to leave the European Union by 2019.

There are great uncertainties surrounding the topics that will be discussed at the negotiating table, and how those outcomes will affect the governing policies of British universities and the quality of higher education.

For example, postgraduate students particularly may bear the brunt of reduced university funding if the European Union no longer sponsors some of the inter-varsity research and exchange projects under the Horizon 2020 agreement. British universities might raise tuition fees for international students. Academic and administrative staff from Europe might face a tighter visa regime if there is a halt of the free movement of EU citizens in the country.

Valerie Amos, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London said the immediate negotiation outcomes of Brexit will not affect students from Hong Kong, although she admitted the longer-term impact will take time to manifest itself.

“[Non-EU] international students are completely separated from the debate around Brexit because…what universities are going to charge for their courses is not in any way determined by Brexit,” Amos said during a visit to Hong Kong for a SOAS centennial event.

“The issue is what happens to European students. If the government makes a decision that they will no longer count as the same as home students, then it’s the fee for EU students that will rise, it’s not that the fees for [non-EU] international students will rise to make up for EU students.”

According to SOAS, 16 percent of its student body are European Union citizens. There are slightly more at postgraduate and doctoral degree level than at undergraduate degree level. In terms of staff numbers, 200 of the total 1,247 come from the EU.

Amos is among a group of worried university leaders who have found themselves making a guarantee publicly to allay the fear of a substantial increase in tuition fees in the coming three to four years.

Earlier this year, Simon Gaskell, president of Queen Mary University of London, told current undergraduate students from EU nations that their tuition would remain at ¬£9,000 (HK$86,684) regardless of the decision of the June 23 vote on Britain’s membership in the bloc.

With their promises, international students view cheaper tuition due to a weaker pound as an attractive short-term benefit. However, in the longer run, many are troubled by issues amplified by the referendum, such as xenophobia and tighter immigration controls.

They also cited poorer post-study work options as a legitimate concern. Richard Portes, economics professor at London Business School, said a fall in investment and the exchange rate are both highly likely once Article 50 is triggered. “The result will be a massive negative shock to the British economy,” he added.

A pre-Brexit poll by Hobsons, a student recruitment and retention solutions company, found that 34 percent of 875 students who were not already registered at a British university said they were less likely to do so in the future because of Brexit. Of those who would find a British education least attractive in the event of Brexit, 82 percent of the respondents were from the EU.

According to the quasi-government body Higher Education Statistics Agency, of the 2.3 million students who attended universities in Britain across all levels in the 2014-15 school year, 107,875, or about 4.7 percent, came from non-EU countries. In that year, the numbers of mainland and Hong Kong students studying in Britain were 89,540 and 16,215 respectively.

Another survey done by research firm International Graduate Insight Group in 2015 found that of the 80,000 Chinese students currently studying in Britain, some 91 percent said they would choose to study in America, if not Britain.

Hobsons estimated 20,178 Chinese students, 4,811 Indian students and 4,592 American students could be averse to coming to study in the UK.

“These figures merely present the extrapolation of attitudinal survey data to indicative changes in total international student numbers,” Hobsons said in a report. “Nevertheless, the results of this survey demonstrate what scale the impact of the EU referendum could be felt on.”

While Amos dismissed a brewing xenophobic public sentiment as “a wrong representation of a nation and its people in this very narrow and insular way,” she said British universities are aware of the competition for student recruitment in the higher education market.

“We have made our concerns clear to government in relation to the advantages of having students who have done research being able to stay on and make a contribution to the United Kingdom. So these are concerns that we have raised, and will continue to raise.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on October 11, 2016.

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