What will happen to international students after Brexit?
Gary McIndoe, immigration solicitor at Latitude Law, shares his thoughts on the post-Brexit effect on international students
The UK’s decision to quit the European Union will have a significant impact on just about every aspect of life here post-Brexit Day on 29 March 2019. In readiness for this fundamental change to the interaction between these islands and the European mainland, the British Government has sought to put in place measures to ensure, as far as it can, a smooth and orderly transition. So how do students stand to be affected?
It is important to understand that the ending of free movement for economic purposes, including study, will not come as quickly as March 2019, so long as the UK doesn’t leave without a deal with the European Commission. The UK government had indicated that it would implement transitional arrangements unilaterally even in the event of a no-deal Brexit, so as to ensure that all EU citizens who relocate here before 31 December 2020 would be eligible for pre-settled and, after five years’ qualifying residence, settled status.
However, in a paper published on 6 December 2018, the UK’s Department for Exiting the EU confirms that no deal means no transition, so protections would exist only for EU citizens present in the UK before Brexit Day on 29 March 2019.
The rights of these citizens are, once again, being used as a bargaining chip – not in negotiations with the European Commission this time, but in the UK government’s efforts to persuade a sceptical electorate and parliament to accept the Withdrawal Agreement. So long as there is a deal, an EEA student beginning a course in autumn 2020 will do so secure in the knowledge that they will continue to benefit from what is effectively freedom of movement, through to settled or permanent resident status, if they choose. Their residence will not be broken by, for example, time off to start a family. It will, however, be broken by prolonged absence from the UK. If that same student completes their master’s, then goes on to do a PhD also at a British university, they must ensure they do not spend more than six months at any one time abroad, for example, doing field research. If they do, they might find themselves having to apply for re-entry under domestic immigration rules, which will apply to post-1 January 2021 arrivals from EEA states.
Through a series of governmental announcements, it has been confirmed that Student Finance England (SFE) and corresponding bodies in the devolved Nations will continue to treat EU students in the same way as now, through to the 2019/20 academic year at least. Education secretary Damien Hinds said in July 2018: “… students from the European Union starting courses in England in the 2019/20 academic year will continue to be eligible for ‘home fee status’, which means they will be charged the same tuition fees as UK students. They will also be able to access financial support for the duration of their course on the same basis as is available today.”
Previous announcements have also encompassed EU family members, who may originate from third countries outside the Union. This latest one does not, which may be a source of concern. Overall, though, up to the start of the 2019/20 academic year, it is currently understood that the position will be as follows:
● Those eligible to receive loans from SFE will remain eligible for loans and grants through to the end of their course
● This applies to all student finance provided to eligible EU students
● It includes loans to cover tuition fees (for those resident in the EEA for at least three years), loans and grants for maintenance (for those resident in the UK for at least three years if they started a course before 1 August 2016, and at least five years if they started or will start a course after that date).
The fact that the transition period for immigration rules will continue until the end of 2020 may lead to a future decision to maintain the status quo for EU students beginning courses in autumn that year, although this cannot be guaranteed.
If – indeed, when – change does occur, what form is the new landscape for EU students likely to take? The education departments of the UK’s nations could decide – possibly unilaterally – to keep things as they are, in order to attract international talent and thereby maintain the standing of the UK’s universities in international eyes.
On the other hand, the worst-case scenario would be a move to non-EU rules, which involve sponsorship by licensed HEIs under Tier 4 of the points-based system. Such students would, of course, pay international fees, currently up to around £18,000 per year for some courses, and be required to hold sufficient maintenance funds, currently £9,135 if studying outside London, and £11,385 if studying in the capital.
Which is more likely? The government’s stated view is that EU citizens will not receive preferential treatment. Therefore, it is wise to fear the worst, with potentially disastrous consequences for the mobility of students and academics between the UK and EU. However, the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales have shown far more willingness to welcome international students and could devise preferential schemes, thus introducing an element of competition between the home nations, which could give their institutions a competitive advantage over those in England.
Gary McIndoe is an immigration solicitor at Latitude Law. An expert in the field of immigration and asylum, he is an AILA International Associate and has contributed the immigration chapter to Doing Business After Brexit.