For a fairer, united, outward looking future

Global citizens: "If the students of today are co-operating then there is hope for the future". Credit NUS

Prime Minister Theresa May must do more than utter platitudes because the future of the UK’s young is too important, writes National Union of Students’ representative, Mike Day.

The United Kingdom Parliament has voted to trigger Article 50 and the process of negotiating the country’s exit from the European Union (EU) has begun.

Brexiters and those that wish us to follow a path of transatlantic deregulation will be jubilant. For the National Union of Students (NUS) – representing seven million students – it represents a sad day. We campaigned to remain. We were devastated by the result, a result which our members tell us they did not want.

At a recent training event in Northern Ireland, the participating student leaders were asked to engage in a series of icebreakers to help create a relaxed atmosphere. One of the activities involved students getting into groups and forming a human sculpture of various abstract ideas – sunrise, for example. Towards the end the facilitator asked groups to form a sculpture that represented “Brexit”. One group formed a circle showing each member of the group shooting themselves in the foot. The conversations throughout the course veered between frustration, bewilderment, anger and sadness that the hopes and aspirations of an outward looking generation, in which 16-year-olds were denied a vote, had been curtailed by an older generation nostalgic for a Britain that no longer exists.

The Prime Minister [has] said little about the impact of Brexit on students or young people …. and we would welcome an urgent indication that these groups are priorities for the Government

The students of today want to play a positive role, not one in which our global role is to exploit and lecture, rather one that seeks to understand and collaborate. Our founding President Ivison S. Macadam said in 1922: “if the students of today are co-operating then there is hope for the future”. We will continue to co-operate and do all that we can to mitigate the damage of the decision to leave, to persuade our negotiators of the value of a truly internationalised educational experience for the future of the UK.

There have been daily twists and turns in the debate around the Brexit process. What we now know is this: a “Hard Brexit” puts years of academic collaboration and student participation in that collaboration at risk.

The UK will retain its membership of the European Higher Education Area (the Bologna Process), but will lose access to the Erasmus+ funding that enables students to seize the opportunity to study and work abroad, an experience our members tell is transformational. From research we know it enhances student employability by 23 per cent. Employers place value on students who have taken this path and the NUS takes the view that, at this critical point in our island’s history, we need internationally literate graduates more than ever. Graduates who can easily form cross-cultural professional relationships and effective networks, and who understand and respect other countries.

There is some hope. In Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech on Brexit on January 17, she indicated that she wanted the UK to be fairer, united and outward looking, open to international talent as well as attracting the brightest and the best. Crucially, she did not rule out joining EU initiatives if they were in the national interest. The NUS takes the view that preserving student and academic mobility and access to research collaborations in which the UK is a lead player is critical to the future success of our country.

However, we are concerned that the Prime Minister said little about the impact of Brexit on students or young people, as such, and we would welcome an urgent indication that these groups are priorities for the Government. We hear with concern the negative narrative around international students, which hardly chimes with Mrs May’s stated objectives.

In her speech to the Conservative Party conference in October last year, the Home Secretary Amber Rudd, made it clear she wished to restrict international student numbers and develop a new student immigration system. She may, of course, be interested in a conversation about how we can make the process of applying to study in the UK less intimidating and bureaucratic, but the message she sent to the world is that international students are not welcome here.

Our colleagues at Universities UK tell us that international students bring almost £11bn to the UK economy. But if Ms Rudd’s plans to cut numbers by 50 per cent are true, then this represents a serious financial risk to our universities. Despite the welcome announcement that funding arrangements for EU students will be honoured for 2016-17, we seek similar assurances for 2017-18 and beyond, particularly if the UK opts for a series of transitional arrangements.

The impact of the current situation and policies is clear according to recent university applicant figures: the number of non-EU students being accepted into UK universities has gone down by 2.3 per cent. The numbers from the EU have fallen by 7 per cent and that’s despite reassurances that funding will be honoured.

The NUS will make its case to those responsible for the Brexit negotiations. We want them to know that:

  • EU students are not bargaining chips. Students who are already here or who will begin courses in the UK before it has formally left the EU need urgent clarity about their status, and this should not be contingent on what the EU offers UK citizens.
  • We should retain access to Erasmus+. If not we must replace it with a similar scheme, otherwise the numbers of international students will decline and the opportunity will be restricted to individuals and countries that are able to afford it.
  • Student mobility around Europe is integral to transformational experiences. The Erasmus programme or alternative programmes like it should be a priority in negotiations.
  • Students should not be made to suffer because of the harmful rhetoric surrounding Brexit. International students have become easy targets, both on campuses and through government policies. Urgent action is needed to show that international students are welcome.
  • International students must be removed from net migration figures. The UK cannot pretend it is open to talent and is a “global” outward looking nation, yet at the same time its attitude to international students suggests the opposite.