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“Oh but you shouldn’t be worrying, of course you will be fine – no one wants to kick you out of the country!” Complete with slightly patronising tone and assertive giggle, this was the invariant reply I would get before the referendum, and for some time during the summer, to my nervous questioning about the future of European citizens after Brexit. Prominent backbenchers, senior civil servants, members of the public and fellow students would cheerfully brush off my worries and go on discussing more important matters, like how much the economy would grow after severing ties with the EU, and how to make the most of the newly-reconquered parliamentary sovereignty.
How times change. Months after the EU referendum, the future of European students in Britain hangs by a thread. My questioning gets less giggling and more concerned looks nowadays. For every day that passes without the government providing any concrete reassurance, the deep sense of unease among British universities’ international community grows harder to ignore. As the initial shock gives way to bitter resignation, many are reconsidering their prospects, and their relationship to a country that, up to June 23rd, had felt like home.
Despite the issue of European citizens’ rights coming at the forefront of the political discourse in recent months, there is still very little awareness of the identities, expectations and hopes of EU students in post-Brexit Britain.
There are around 3 million EU citizens in the UK, most whom are resident in London. Of these, only around 127,000 were enrolled in higher education in 2015, although the number of European students has been almost constantly growing for a decade – among the most represented nationalities in British universities are German, French, and Italian students. Although reported enrollment numbers have fallen since the referendum, European students collectively represent around 5% of all university students in the country. Because it is impossible to track the movements of people across Europe, data on subject of enrollment, career choices, and domicile after graduations are scarce, yet it is not difficult to piece the puzzle together: around 21% of workers in high-skilled and professional positions come from the EEA, and the vast majority of those from the EU.
But beyond the numbers, who are the European students in British universities, and how have their lives changed after Brexit?
Although European students have access to the same £9000-a-year loan available to British students, they are not eligible for maintenance loans. Undergraduates at top London universities must rely on family funding for their living expenses. The significance of this financial undertaking means that the average European student in London is either relatively wealthy, or clever enough to justify the investment. For the thousands coming from Southern Europe, where youth unemployment hovers around 30-40%, a British degree is a passport for the kind of lucrative and fulfilling career they are convinced their countries could never offer.
But, at least before the referendum, it wasn’t all about the jobs. By the third week after I had moved to London for university, I felt at home in the city. I fell in love with its friendly, international vibe, with the sense of purpose that everyone seemed to exude. At university, as much as in the outside world, I felt my initiative was rewarded and my contribution valued. In a word, I felt welcome, and so did most of my fellow European students.
After the referendum, nothing has changed in this respect. It would be lazy to claim that European students have perceived a worsening public attitude, at least in London. The city is a comfortable bubble where outpourings of support are offered every day, and where the essential contribution of Europeans to the London’s everyday business is widely acknowledged.
Yet, in strident contrast with day-to-day social experience of European students, the government has done nothing to provide reassurance post-Brexit. During the referendum campaign, the issue of Europeans in Britain was barely mentioned, so most assumed nothing would change: we felt safe. In the immediate aftermath of the vote, as the discussion turned to everything from who was going to be prime minister to what sort of Brexit the government was going to deliver, we felt forgotten. Now, we feel betrayed.
At a more superficial level, the government’s stance towards European and other international students seems plainly unreasonable. As home secretary as well as prime minister, Theresa May could have simply avoided counting international students in the immigration figures – even chancellor Philip Hammond suggested so. Now she has again committed to the absurd target of keeping net immigration under 100,000 people a year – another blow to Britain’s international academic community. Her decision to wage war against international students resulted in increasingly stringent restrictions on university admission and job market access. Despite universities’ resistance, she is prepared to subject European students to a similar treatment post-Brexit, blindly disregarding the benefits we bring to Britain’s higher education institutions.
What is behind Theresa May’s unexplainable aversion to international students? Not only will restricting international students’ access to higher education hurt British universities by drastically reducing the lack of funding available to them (even if EU students were made to pay international students’ fees, falling application numbers will not help to close the gap left by withdrawn European funding), but the international, diverse and stimulating environment on which British higher education prides itself will be seriously compromised. More generally, the whole narrative surrounding the negotiations and the use of European immigrants as “bargaining chips” only worsens the terms of the relationship between Europeans and Britain.
Meanwhile, a deeper shift has occurred in how students like me view our futures. Before June 23rd most Europeans considered the UK their home, and had relatively clear plans about their professional and personal life in the country. Now uncertainty has come to rule our lives. Crucially, it is not just about whether we will obtain permanent residency. In fact, most of us know that we would easily qualify for a skilled-worker visa if necessary. The deeper problem, which has kept cropping up in conversations with other EU students in London, is that the loss of trust in the British government, whose position seems needlessly unfair, has begun to undermine Europeans’ sense of belonging in their adopted community.
Since the referendum, the country that we used to call home seems to have turned against us. And while this was hard to accept in the beginning, we are now starting to look beyond London, beyond Britain, to other places that will welcome us with open arms. Something fundamental has shifted in the relationship European students had with the UK. In the same way that we feel the country does not care about us, we too care less about it. The pride and enthusiasm to give back to a country that has provided us so generously with higher education, social services, and a community, is being, at least partly, replaced with cold and calculated self-interest. “I still plan to live here, but only if I can get a high-paying job”; “it depends on whether the big banks stay”; “I wonder if I will get the same returns to my education I was hoping for” -all comments I hear more and more frequently in discussions with my peers.
Britain’s identity is defined by its multiculturalism, openness and inclusivity. The country’s economy, through the quality of its research and educational institutions, is strongly dependent on the influx of students and funding from the European continent. It is in the UK’s best interests that these students are motivated to stay beyond their degree, and become an active part of British society, contributing to its fiscal revenue as well as to the enrichment of its community. Yet Brexit, and the government’s hard line on immigration, disregards all this. No one likes being called a citizen of nowhere, but if we must, so be it: we might leave, and it will not just be our loss.