Illustration by Hannah Robinson

It has been over three years since the results of the Brexit referendum were announced. The initial deadline was March 29th 2019, and although this date has passed and two extensions have been granted, little information about Brexit has been released. As a result, there remains a high degree of uncertainty, especially for students.

There is significant concern about the effect of Brexit on students in higher education, particularly Irish students in the UK, and British and Northern Irish students studying in the Republic of Ireland. Many of the questions students have still are being discussed – and remain unanswered – a response which has become commonplace for those involved.

A Northern Irish student studying Science at Trinity College Dublin, Aisling Broder-Rodgers, expressed this sentiment. She declared, “[I] would say there’s been nothing clear about how Brexit has been communicated, right from the campaigning stage!”. Similarly, Irish Student Caitlin Hogan, a 2nd- year student at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University reiterated this. She said, “Honestly, I’ve just been waiting for it to actually happen. Everyone is in the unknown, anyone I’ve asked just doesn’t know.” She felt that financial uncertainty caused by Brexit is making prospective students less likely to choose to study in the UK.

The University of Bristol Students’ Union released an International & EU Students Research Project in June 2019, which provided insights into the effect Brexit has on students. Their report highlighted that students feel uncertain for the future and increasingly feel unwelcome in the UK. Brexit confusion has made students reconsider their future career prospects, with many contemplating moving to another country.

In the report, a student recounted feeling like “an unwelcomed guest in the country”. The report found that students felt Brexit contributed to an anti-immigrant feeling which normalised racist and nationalist behaviour. Another student believed “nationalist resurgence has enabled a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily express discriminatory thoughts”. Overall, the report found that international students felt as though they did not belong in the UK anymore.

International students have also expressed the unfairness of Brexit, arguing that they make contributions to the country through working, paying taxes and paying fees, but are still at risk of being forced to leave the UK in the future. The report mentioned a student commenting, “I feel like we have been unfairly dealt and that the public image on immigration has been manipulated to a despicable degree”.

In terms of travel between Ireland and Northern Ireland, Trinity College Dublin Student’s Union President, Laura Beston, explained that she hopes that the Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland will ensure continued free movement for students. This is an open borders policy preceding any involvement in the EU. However, a no-deal Brexit could result in custom checks which could lead to delays in travelling.

Additionally, Erasmus is likely to be impacted by Brexit. For 2020 at least, the EU Parliament approved measures to ensure EU funds for the upcoming year with a proposal that would allow continued payments to UK beneficiaries like Erasmus+ contingent on the UK paying its contributions and accepting necessary controls and audits. Last Wednesday, an amendment to the withdrawal bill was defeated which aimed to ensure the UK’s continued participation in Erasmus+. A spokesperson from the Department of Education later commented that the UK is, “committed to continuing the academic relationship”.

The recent elections resulted in a Conservative government who are likely to support Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new Brexit deal. This was evident when Johnson’s withdrawal agreement bill was passed by a 124 majority in the House of Commons this past Friday. This is a promising start to future negotiations between the UK and the EU; however, there is a long period to follow before actual changes are implemented. Johnson seems to have set a firm deadline for Brexit, with December 31st 2020 as the hard limit. Other pressing concerns will take precedence over higher education, which puts students with unanswered questions in an awkward position.