EU students worry for their future in the UKLouis Ashworth

The release of this year’s UCAS application statistics will no doubt be a moment of relief for many at the university who have maintained an hysterical fear over Brexit. But with distinctly mixed messaging from the government on the rights of EU citizens after Brexit – a leaked Home Office document from September indicated a much harsher approach than the default acceptance of applications promised by Amber Rudd earlier this month – the picture of what Brexit will look like for the university and its students is far from settled.

For EU students at Cambridge caught up in this mess, this can be a deeply disorientating experience. Leo Paillard is a French 3rd year at King’s College, studying HSPS. He also chairs CUSU’s international Students Campaign, who are currently working on a broad survey of how current EU Cambridge students feel. “It’s important to get to know what students think about it”, says Leo.

"I think I’ve become more aware of being a cosmopolitan"

Undoubtedly, iCUSU’s survey will reveal in full detail that EU students are no monolithic entity. But in talking to a number of EU students, a consensus seems to exist around certain points. The first is how attractive UK Higher Education is, or at least has been. Romanian national Simina Dragos, a 2nd year Education and German student at Emmanuel College, emphasised “the image the UK has abroad as being a very academically successful country”, along with “the advantage of the fact that I could get a student loan”, unlike in the United States.

Joanna Banasik, a Polish finalist studying HSPS at Emmanuel was similarly attracted to the UK. Joanna did her A-Levels in the UK after being awarded a scholarship. After applying to a number of universities in England and the United States, and gaining an offer from Columbia University, she accepted a place at Cambridge. Joanna lists the UK’s access to Europe, as well as more affordable fees, as reasons for staying in the UK: “One of the reasons I didn’t go to America was that I ended up thinking that if I finished university here I could go back to Europe”.

With the UK approaching its exit from the European Union, the terms of which remain unclear, some of these attractive qualities appear in danger. It seems likely that future applicants will have to apply for visas, and may have to pay the overseas tuition rate, which currently ranges from £19,197 to £50,130.

Naturally, students already in the UK will be unaffected by this, and have had their situation clarified somewhat by recent statements from the Home Office on the status of EU citizens residing in the UK at the time of Brexit.

Indeed, for the most part, the students I talked to did not seem too concerned about their status. “I never feel like I’m in danger of being expelled out of the country,” Simina told me, “because I’m a student at Cambridge”. Much greater concern was raised, for working class Europeans, particularly Eastern Europeans, who could be used as scapegoats. “I’ve actually found it difficult being Polish. We get a very bad rap”, says Joanna, who blames British xenophobia on the nation’s class based society. “If you have a class society you have to find an underclass”, she argues.

All of the Eastern European students I spoke to me emphasised how much of a bubble Cambridge is in this respect. Simina has only left Cambridge once, while Aleksandra Janowska, a first-year Engineer at King’s tells me that distant family members in the UK have experienced attacks for being Polish. “For now in Cambridge it feels good” she says, “but I haven’t been to London yet”.

Yet despite these assurances of the government, and the relative safe space that is Cambridge life, the students I spoke to still feel that the transition makes the country a less attractive place to seek employment after graduation.

Aleksandra, who lived in Warsaw until she was seven before moving around Europe, ultimately studying at a British school in Spain, intends to go into the Aerospace industry, which she thinks would have brought her away from the UK anyway. But discussing the fate of her fellow international students, she notes that “whereas in the past if you had a similar sort of job offer in England and in Germany, a person who studied in England would choose England… but now because of the drawbacks and hurdles, they could go for the EU option more of the time”.

Citing purely material factors, Leo suggested that Brexit would lead to a decline in prosperity which would make the UK less attractive for students. For Joanna, however, the disruption was more specific. “I was maybe thinking of doing a law conversion and working as a lawyer, but that is so constricted to the country where you do your law conversion”, she says, “I’m probably not going to do a law conversion unless I know that I can stay here and work here”.


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Many of the students noted that the mobility of continental Europeans made it very easy to find employment elsewhere in Europe. Simina, who went to nursery in Hungary and lived in Germany for a year when she was 16 said, “I think I’ve become more aware of being a cosmopolitan citizen.”

And while today’s figures give hope to Europhiles throughout the UK academy, the European students I talked to were hesitant when I asked them what they would do if applying today. “No I don’t think so, I think it would have scared me,” said Simina, “I think I would have gone somewhere else, Germany or the Netherlands.”

Joanna is less sure. “For me it’s quite practical, I’ve lived here for quite a while”, she tells me, “it depends on the day, you go right and you don’t know what would have happened if you’d gone left”.

Many stories have been told about Brexit, by people with many different intentions. One of the most prominent voices in the debate is one admonishing low-skilled immigrants for ‘taking our jobs’. The EU students I spoke to may be right that the burden of post-Brexit immigration controls will fall on these less powerful groups, but one feels that an unintended consequence of this may be the flight of skilled workers of their own accord.

Additional reporting by Todd Gillespie

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