by  Stefanie Claudia Müller

The new political climate in which populist parties attract significant support across Europe, as demonstrated in the recent European elections, is having a dramatic effect within the UK. Old EU watchers are saying publicly that, for the first time since UK entry in 1973, they see a long slow slide taking place which also made Brexit posible. Present government strategy is going ahead with the complete independence on EU decisions and with reinforcing the British personality again. The “Britain first” – policy has an important impact on the access for UK’s higher education. 

Resistance to Brexit is visible, but also rising racism

However, there are now signs of resistance from several UK policy sectors to the most negative scenarios. Protesters have voiced their anger at rising anti-immigration sentiment in the UK in a series of demonstrations across the country. It is also evident that some urgent reflection is taking place. The ‘Benefits of Brussels‘ conference was a good example, bringing into the British debate a sense of the different strategies being adopted in the UK and elsewhere to secure the benefits of European membership for the higher education sector. At governmental level, the British have in the past very effectively cut to the obvious gains. They have pursued a strategy of getting a major share of European research funding. Vice chancellors have taken a public stand on what a loss this is under the Brexit circumstances.

Despina Karayianni, a Greek national living in London, says that Prime Minister Theresa May was using EU nationals like her as “bargaining chips”: “She wants to frighten EU citizens living, working and studying here,” she said, adding “I don’t think she will succeed because we are part of this society and the majority here don’t want us kicked out.” The British government just announced that  it will not guarantee residency rights for EU nationals living in the UK until it receives reciprocal guarantees from the EU for Britons living in other member states.

UK higher education becomes more british with the Brexit scenario

The UK’s academic recruitment practice based on rules rather than cronyism was before Brexit known for searching the brightest and best regardless of origin. UK universities do disproportionately well in European programmes such as Horizon 2020 and in hosting the holders of European Research Council grants. UK universities are doubly fortunate. In many countries much of this funding filters away to non-university institutes.

In contrast to the British, the Germans have gone for long-term strategies in Europe and beyond, with academic exchange in all forms being an intrinsic part. The Germans are pace setters on student mobility. Where the EU aims of 20% of students with some learning experience outside their home country by 2020 – already ambitious by British standards – the Germans already have 30% and aim for 50%.

Germany will surpass the UK as international study destination

Germany does not see internationalisation in terms of immediate commercial interest. It does not charge incoming international students fees. It encourages them to stay on to work and 30% do so and their taxes reimburse the cost. Apart the government gives extra funds to German students who study abroad. It does not worry about brain drain. It calls for people and sends its people abroad without any objection.

The Erasmus family of programmes, in operation since 1987, has institutionalised collaboration between European systems. They have come a long way from student exchange and obligatory inter-university cross-border cooperation under Erasmus Mundus, to the 2014-20 programme Erasmus+, which bridges sectors and continents. The UK technnically will not be part of the programme anymore after Brexit. The already limited language skills of most British students will increase.