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Brexit spells uncertainty for EU universities

In the aftermath of the UK’s historic EU referendum, universities in Europe have been caught up in the vacuum of uncertainty created by Brexit. Speaking with The PIE News, stakeholders predicted a fall in incoming UK students over the coming years but said they are hopeful that it could be offset by growing interest from students from other EU states.

How Brexit will affect the UK's participation in the Erasmus+ programme is a topic of concern in EU higher education. Photo: Flickr/Jirka Matousek.

However, with much left to be determined, concerns are still widespread that if any radical changes do occur, the positives won’t outweigh the negatives.

A lot rests on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. If, like Switzerland and Norway, it negotiates for free movement within the bloc and for EU students to continue accessing higher education at subsidised rates, student mobility and academic cooperation may remain relatively unchanged.

“It may happen that Brexit will not affect student mobilities from and to the UK at all, so there may be no reason at all for any ‘reshuffling’ of mobilities between the EU countries,” Tereza Fojtová, communications director at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, said.

However, some UK students studying in the EU are already worried about the possibility that as non-EU students, they will be forced to pay higher fees in future.

“There are already requests from students coming from EU if they still have the possibility to enrol at our university instead of a university in the UK”

“We have received some questions, mainly about the tuition fee status for UK citizens – if they will be required to pay in the future,” reported Tina Larsson, international coordinator at Stockholm University’s admissions office.

Post-study work is also a worry, according to Karin Sulmann, deputy director of Hanze University‘s International Health Care School in the Netherlands: “The [students] I have spoken to are indeed concerned, not only regarding their studies but also regarding employability afterwards in Europe.”

In light of the uncertainty overshadowing the sector, universities are reassuring current students that their studies will not be affected.

“For the enrolled students at Sciences Po, they should not be worried at all about how the UK leaving the EU might affect their studies. They are part of the student body and belong to our community,” said Aurélien Krejbich, director of the French university’s international affairs division.

Caroline van Overbeeke, spokesperson of the board for Leiden University, predicted that in future, the university will see fewer UK students “which, from our point of view, are very important for our international classrooms”.

However, she suggested the institution may see a rise in students from the EU. Other institutions have also noted this as a potential benefit, if EU students are deterred by the prospect of paying higher fees in the UK.

The UK’s strict post-study regulations – which require non-EU students to leave the country soon after graduation unless they have secured a job offer – could also convince EU students to study outside the UK, suggested Arian van Hulsel, coordinator of exchange and partners at Fontys International Business School in the Netherlands.

“We expect education programmes in the Netherlands to benefit from this, as the Netherlands offers quite a number of quality education programmes taught in English and the level of English is generally found to be good,” he added.

Meanwhile, the University of Twente, also in the Netherlands, has already had “requests from students coming from the EU asking if they still have the possibility to enrol at our university instead of a university in the UK”, according to spokesperson of the executive board Bertyl Lankhaar.

Nevertheless, for most institutions, the disadvantages and uncertainty brought about by Brexit far outweigh the gains.

Despite acknowledging that the university might see more applications from other EU students if tuition fees rise in the UK, Fojtová at Masaryk University said “I really cannot think of any advantage at this moment”.

“The same uncertainty that applies across the UK sector applies to us”

As well as student mobility, Brexit could affect joint ventures including double degree programmes and research cooperation. “These partnerships contribute directly to Sciences Po’s attractiveness and excellency,” Krejbich noted, making it a “great matter of concern”.

Tim Gore, CEO of University of London Institute in Paris, noted a ripple effect on EU universities that partner with institutions in the UK. “The same uncertainty that applies across the UK sector applies to us as we do not yet know what the departure will mean in terms of the current programmes we run,” he said.

One particular area of concern is Erasmus+. The scheme has guaranteed mobility funding for student exchanges will stay in place for 2016 and 2017, but beyond that the future is unknown.

Krejbich at Sciences Po is among those who have suggested the UK should become a ‘third country’ participant, like Norway and Switzerland.

“The European youth should not be taken hostage by this situation,” he contended. “The Erasmus+ programme is promoting open mindedness, mobility and intercultural exchanges.”

And if Brexit excludes the UK from research funding initiatives such as Horizon 2020, scientific cooperation could be impacted, noted van Overbeeke.

Nevertheless, she added that other options are possible: “Maybe we can compensate that with other sorts of scientific bilateral cooperation (like we have with Switzerland and other non-EU countries).”

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