While official negotiations for Brexit will begin next week, the specifics of what Britain leaving the EU will actually mean are still being hotly contested. That is especially true in academia: two British PhD candidates in the Netherlands and one former RUG student who moved to the United Kingdom talk about the impact of the vote’s outcome on their lives so far.
Even though she was already living in the United Kingdom by then, Lotte Hemmen was actually in the Netherlands working on her thesis in the University Library when the Brexit referendum vote results came in. ‘I remember it being a surreal Friday’, she says. ‘It was similar to Trump winning the elections in the US. No one thought this could happen.’
Hemmen had just moved to the UK in February of 2016 in the hopes of making the country her new home. After the Brexit vote in June, Hemmen decided to follow through with the plan, despite her newfound sense of doubt. ‘I was gutted and scared as I didn’t know how Brexit was going to affect my plans, and I did think, “Do I want to live in a country that is so self-destructive and self-centred that it blames all of its problems on the EU and doesn’t take responsibility for its own actions?”’
Brave new world
The answer to her own question remained ‘yes’, even though many of her friends and family members were equally worried and curious about the effects of Brexit on her future. But her friends in the United Kingdom responded differently: many were angry, some called it a ‘brave new world’ and others had ‘a little cry’ on Brexit Friday.
Newcastle University, where she spent the first semester of her master’s degree, sought to reassure its students. ‘They sent an email stating that despite the recent vote, their views on academia would not be affected by this’, says Hemmen. ‘A lot of their staff is European and they want to keep it that way as higher education is something that both transcends and unites nations, and they feel that universities have to work together to maintain these open relationships and collaborations’, she says.
That not only goes for exchanging expertise, but also for how research is financed. Currently, the European Union is a major resource for funding academic projects, both based in the United Kingdom or involving British researchers elsewhere: The EU’s budget for the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme is 80 billion euros.
PhD candidates who will graduate before 2019, which is currently the year that Brexit is supposed to actually happen, will most likely continue receiving funding through that time. Steven Forrest, a British PhD candidate working at the RUG, belongs in that category. He started his university-funded PhD in September 2014.
Brexit has raised concerns not only for British researchers, but also the future of exchange programs like Erasmus+, according to evidence submitted to a British government inquiry launched by the Educational Committee in September 2016.
Erasmus Student Network has voiced their worries about the risks posed to British student mobility as a result of Brexit. In total, Erasmus+ provides funds for 16,000 UK university students and 8,500 students from vocational training schools to study or work abroad each year, and many students benefit from volunteer experience abroad. An additional 2,200 UK higher education staff receive funding to work or train outside the UK.
But the possible effect of the UK exiting the European Union on student mobility programs has yet to translate into lower numbers of Dutch students going to Britain. Dievertje Doornbusch of the RUG’s Mobility and Scholarship desk says that there is not a noticeable difference in the number of exchange students since the Brexit vote: in the 2016-2017 academic year, there are 96 Dutch students on exchange in the UK through the Erasmus+ program. That is not vastly different from other recent years: In the 2015-2016 academic year, 92 students were on Erasmus+ exchange in the UK, and in 2014-2015, there were 104 Erasmus+ students.
‘I am lucky as my contract finishes in September 2018, so I am not worried about the funding. Even if Brexit happens eventually, it will be March 2019 at the earliest, and therefore my PhD funding won’t be affected per se’, he explains. He also took comfort in the board of the RUG’s quick response to the Brexit decision, which stated that there would be ‘no immediate consequences of Brexit for our current British students’.
While his position may not be impacted, other British academics are already finding themselves in difficult situations as uncertainty about financing leads to hesitation from European universities. Forrest has not personally experienced that, but he says that he has already heard of examples of British academics having their roles reduced and attempts made to freeze them out of future EU grant proposals.
A recent press release from Heriot Watt University, located in Scotland, seems to confirm this: The university announced that it will cut 100 jobs in the next two year due in part to increased difficulties in qualifying for EU funding because of uncertainty from the ‘Brexit-effect’.
‘A lot of uncertainty’
On the flip side – British researchers being able to get EU funding to do work on the continent – RUG spokesperson Gernant Deekens says it is too soon to say what will happen. ‘As the whole Brexit situation is too premature at this moment, the university hasn’t yet prepared a plan for British students. However, we have been in contact with our British students since the Brexit vote and are trying to help them as much as we can. But there is a lot of uncertainty still.’
That uncertainty may be behind a significant increase in the number of British students coming to the RUG. While their numbers have been increasing dramatically since 2010, the totals from before and after the Brexit vote still stand out. According to Noor van Schaik, head of Student Information and Administration, as of September 2015, there were 251 British students enrolled at the RUG in total: By September 2016, that was 358 (although Van Schaik emphasises that this number could still change if any students drop out).
For Forrest, if anything, the Brexit vote has muddied the waters on whether he wants to return to the United Kingdom or remain in an EU country after graduation. ‘The UK receives a lot of EU research funding for academia compared to the amount it puts in. So if there is no agreement over UK access to EU research funding when the UK leaves the EU, that could potentially mean that there would be more research funding and academic opportunities in the EU’, he says.
For other British PhD candidates here, doing research in the Netherlands provides at least some sense of stability. ‘Working on external projects might lead to funding challenges and project rejections, but many researchers are working on internal projects, funded by the Dutch government’, says Meg Perry-Duxbury, a former RUG student who is now pursuing a PhD at Erasmus University Rotterdam. ‘However, no one knows anything about what will happen yet’, adds Perry-Duxbury.
Meanwhile, back in the UK, Hemmen is also waiting to see what the future holds. ‘I didn’t want Brexit to influence my plans and it is going to take such a long time for it to have any effect. I’ll cross that bridge when I’ll get to it’, she says. But with every day seeming to bring new stories of EU nationals having to prove they were British residents before the referendum even took place, Hemmen is concerned. She moved to the UK before the referendum with the intention of staying indefinitely, but her mentality now is a bit wait and see: ‘we’ll see how long they will let me stay.’
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