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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Isaac Brothers: At Risk of Deportation

Darlington and Prosper Isaacs fled from the civil war in Sierra Leone to the Netherlands in 2001, but they are now at risk of being deported. The town of Assen, the Hanze and Darlington’s former supervisor at the RUG have lent them support, but the brothers hope university leadership will do the same. 

When Darlington and Prosper arrived in the Netherlands, they were children: 14 and 11 years old, respectively. Their mother had been killed and their father had gone missing, and the young brothers migrated to the Netherlands alone.

‘Unfortunately, we weren’t familiar with the Dutch system back then and as we were asylum seekers, we didn’t have all the necessary documents with us,’ Darlington, a recent master’s graduate in Information Science, explains.

‘We are stuck here’

This is the reason why the Immigration and Naturalisation Service – Immigratie en Naturalisatiedienst (IND) – has turned multiple applications for a resident permit down.

This is not the first time Darlington and Prosper have been at risk of deportation. In 2010, the IND also asked them to leave the country, but due to a lack of necessary travel documents, they were unable to go.

That effectively means that the brothers can’t return to Sierra Leone, nor can they stay in the Netherlands: the embassies in both countries refuse to give them the necessary papers in order to travel.

‘Basically, we are stuck here, and I think this is also the reason they put our case aside for a while,’ Prosper, a graduate of the Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen, says.

In September, Darlington managed to find a job right after completing his studies. However, the IND rejected his application for a work permit because he didn’t have a resident permit yet, which sparked problems for them once again: the IND asked Darlington to leave the country on 13 January, but that decision has now been postponed until further notice.


Darlington and Prosper knew that applying for a residence permit once more would only be futile and so they asked people from the local government of the town of Assen – where they live – to help them.

The people there have taken up their cause, hoping that it will receive more attention. ‘They set up an action committee and a petition, and they are actually coordinating the whole campaign,’ Darlington explains.

‘We didn’t expect so many people to sign on our behalf’ ‘To be honest, initially, we didn’t expect so many people to sign on our behalf. We are very happy that people feel like we are part of the society,’ Prosper says. The mayor of Assen is also trying to help the brothers, which they are grateful for in light of their unstable position. ‘Every day, we live with the uncertainty about what will happen next,’ says Darlington.

‘He is Dutch’

Johan Bos, a professor of Computational Semantics at the RUG, was one of Darlington’s master’s teachers and his pre-master’s thesis supervisor. He is also trying to spread the word about the petition and raise awareness.

Isaac Brothers: At Risk of Deportation

‘It is really important that people sign it’, Bos says. ‘He is Dutch. He graduated from Dutch universities and he also speaks the language very well. He is valuable for our society, so I don’t understand why they would send him back.’

They hope that the attention their case has received will put pressure on immigration minister Klaas Dijkhoff, who is the one who will eventually decide.

Darlington is sincerely thankful for the support he has received, not only from his teacher but also from the entire arts faculty. ‘Mr. Bos has supported me a lot, but I was expecting someone with more power and influence to also step in the situation and help us. I have nothing against the university and I don’t know if me thinking like that is right or realistic,’ Darlington emphasises.

Members of the staff of the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, where both brothers received their bachelor degrees, have also offered their support to Prosper and Darlington. When contacted for comment, RUG spokesperson Gernant Deekens said that the board of the university was not yet aware of the Isaac brothers’ case.

Back to Sierra Leone

Although only Darlington was at risk of being deported initially, now, they both are. ‘We are in this campaign together, so everything that refers to Darlington applies to me as well,’ Prosper says, and Darlington adds, ‘I could never leave my brother behind.’

‘We would feel like foreigners in Sierra Leone’ Darlington and Prosper don’t even want to think about how life would be if they would be forced to go back to Sierra Leone. They don’t have any family or friends there, so they would have to start from scratch. ‘We would feel like foreigners in Sierra Leone,’ Darlington says.

‘Everything we are and everything we learned, we did it here. They have to take these kind of things into consideration while making a decision,’ Prosper adds.

Uncertain future

Their campaign and what will happen next are constantly in their minds, night and day. ‘We grew up here. We are Dutch and we want to be able to live here,’ says Prosper.

‘After so many years of living here, it would be inhuman if the IND makes us leave or just leaves us in the streets, because that’s what will happen if we don’t have a working permit or travel documents,’ Darlington says.

If you would like to help Darlington and Prosper, you can sign the petition here.


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Philae Goes to Sleep

Philae, the first lander on a comet, has gone to sleep two days after its landing, due to low battery levels.


The European Space Agency (ESA) released a lander named Philae, on Wednesday, as part of the Rosetta mission. It was Rosetta’s first attempt of a controlled landing on the Comet 67 P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, after 10 years of travelling.

Philae’s, first days on the comet were troubled. After the rough, but still successful landing, Philae couldn’t be located accurately but it became known that it had been stuck in shadow, unable to get enough sunlight to recharge its solar-powered batteries.

ESA scientists announced on Friday that they were trying to activate Philae’s onboard drill, and “hop” the robot into a sunnier position. They stated that Philae could only last 60 hours on the initial charge. Then it would need sunlight in order to charge again and keep the system on.

Philae successfully changed position and rotated 35 degrees. However it was too late for the batteries.

According to ESA’s members, Philae’s mission was to gather material from the comet’s surface and subsurface for further analysis.

ESA scientists receive data from Philae

ESA scientists receive data from Philae

Despite the fact that Philae went to sleep, ESA scientists managed to collect data from it, which they will analyze in the following days. ESA announced on its official website that Rosetta’s mission will continue regardless Philae’s fate.

Rosetta’s mission is to answer some fundamental questions about our solar system, by following the comet closely.

According to ESA, Rosetta is expected to pursue this goal until December 2015. By that time the comet will have reached its closest point to the sun.

As for Philae, although ESA scientists lost contact with it yesterday evening, they are very proud of this first attempt to land Philae on the comet and they consider the mission accomplished.

“History has been made. Science has been advanced. And we have taken a step closer towards understanding our cosmic origins. Let us always remember the day that Philae landed. I thank you all,” Stuart Clark, member of the mission’s control, said  to the Guardian.


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