Knowing Is Half The Battle: Students Versus Brexit

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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Brexit In Groningen

While the debate over a ‘Brexit heats up ahead of a vote next week, British students, and alumni are wondering how it will affect them here in Groningen. 

British RUG alumnus Tom Wilcox has been living in Groningen for over 25 years, which means not having a vote in the referendum in his case. But the outcome could impact his whole life. ‘I don’t have a Dutch passport as I am still a British citizen. I am living and working here and I don’t want to change my life.’

He is one of many British people living in Europe who could be negatively affected if Britain votes ‘leave’. As of 2015, there were 1.2 million Britons living in the EU outside of Britain, and the Netherlands alone is home to roughly 50,000 British expats. That includes 267 students and 42 researchers at the RUG.

‘It’s a privilege’

A British exodus from the EU could change their lives overnight, since even travelling to Britain may become trickier if they are no longer part of the same union. Wilcox visits his home country quite often, as his parents are still living there, but he wonders whether it will still be so easy after June 23rd. ‘I can now travel between the UK and the Netherlands whenever I want to, but it would be funny if in the future things became more complicated.’

Besides the impact it could have on him personally, he is in favour of staying in the EU for principle reasons as well. ‘Isolating your country and becoming less and less international is a bad thing. As an expat, I think it’s very important to live in a multicultural environment. Many countries are trying to be in the EU, so I think it’s a privilege for us.’

Although Wilcox cannot vote in the referendum, British students and staff at the RUG are making sure their voices will be heard. Sam McCaddon, a first year student in international and European law at the RUG, has already signed up for a proxy vote, which means he has empowered someone else to vote on his behalf.

Non-EU students

‘I am using the benefits the EU offers every day and I will lose them all if the majority is against it’, McCaddon says. ‘I am worried about things like free movement within the EU and my tuition fees of course, as they will definitely increase in a Brexit scenario.’

If Britons vote to leave the EU, that may also mean that British students abroad would have to pay the same amount in tuition fees as non-EU students. In recent years, many more British students have come to the Netherlands because tuition fees are far cheaper here: university in Britain can cost as much as 12,600 euros (9,000 pounds) per year, whereas British students will pay 1,951 euros in the coming academic year in Groningen. If Britain drops out of the EU, that could instead range from 8,000 to 13,900 euros. No longer qualifying for EU tuition fees could likely lead to fewer Brits choosing to study here.

But Duncan Saunders, another British first year student who will also vote by proxy, doubts that the amount of money British students pay would change. ‘The tuition fees in Switzerland, for example, are the same as the rest of the EU countries. Probably something similar will be arranged for the UK as well.’

Saunders believes that Britain would be better off out than in. ‘I don’t feel the EU is democratic enough,’ he says. He brings up the Five Presidents Report which, in addition to outlining plans for strengthening the economic and monetary union, also calls for further integration into the EU by 2025. ‘England will never accept that, so it’s better to leave now,’ he says. Even if the majority of Britons opt to stay in the EU, he is certain there will be another referendum in the near future.


Stefan Couperus, an assistant professor of European Politics and Society, believes the effects of a Brexit will only be visible in the long run. ‘I think the heaviest impact will be on trade. British people tend to forget that almost half of their trade is conducted either with or within the EU.’

And even if European tuition fees do not change for British students, studying at university in Britain is almost certain to become more expensive since they are subsidised in part by the EU. ‘A Brexit will create a gap in their budget and it would lead to higher tuition fees,’ Couperus explains. Couperus also suspects Britain would lose its privilege to participate in the Erasmus programme, which would make staff members and students’ exchanges much more complicated.

Opinions of British students, staff and alumni aside, RUG spokesperson Gernant Deekens believes that questions regarding a possible Brexit are still altogether premature. ‘A negative outcome of the referendum does not mean that the UK will leave the EU immediately. Separation dates have to be set and additional measures have to be taken. My impression is that present students would not have to fear.’

‘Splendid isolation’

McCaddon feels quite confident that the majority of Britons will vote in favour of staying next week. ‘I can’t really see a Brexit happening. From my experience, our EU membership has never been much of an issue in the UK, but it is more an issue created by the political parties.’

Although Couperus says that modern Britain is diverse and sees itself as a part of the EU, the British have historically considered themselves to be something other than just a European nation. ‘Some still think that they are an isolated superior power: they call it ‘splendid isolation’. Some contemporary historians are still in favour of this.’

No matter what the historians believe, the majority of Britain has yet to decide, and Wilcox is anticipating the final results nervously. If a Brexit is indeed on the horizon, he would be forced to consider abandoning his British passport in order to get a Dutch one so as to retain European citizenship, as he would not be allowed to keep both nationalities.

‘Although I have been living in the Netherlands for long enough in order to feel that this is my home, I am still not ready at all to give up my British rights’, Wilcox says. ‘On June 24, I will keep checking my news websites all day and hoping that people in the UK will make the right decision.’


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