The impact of the Brexit vote on foreign students studying in the UK

All of us in the world of education will remember where we were the morning of 24th June 2016. The first email I received was from a colleague in the deep south of New South Wales.  The shock waves had travelled across the world and back while most Brits were still sleeping.

It was a proper vote with a proper turnout: more than 77% of the UK adult population had marked a cross in a box.  17,410,742 had voted to leave.  After hours of headshaking disbelief, I began to acknowledge the enormity of the decision.

We were too busy living the dream; riding a seemingly permanent wave of globalisation, embracing the inevitability of a connected world meaning a world without borders. At least this was true for our world, the world of education. In people terms, we had become more global than global finance.

What happens next in Europe is not precipitated by the Brexit vote.  It will reflect similar divisions and divergence of opinion, ignored for too long by educators and those with educational advantage.

The most significant result of these elections is not an in or out. It is the jarring, clawing, baying, tearing exposure of fault lines between ages, communities, regions… north and south, metropolitan and rural, profession and trade, old and young… each pointing at the other.

What I admire most about the British people - all sides - is their ability to see beyond the immediate argument. In Government and opposition and across the divides of all parties, for the time being a palpable sense of pragmatism is at work: recognition that the thing that matters most of all is to acknowledge, respect, address and to accept the differences.

What I admire most about the British people - all sides - is their ability to see beyond the immediate argument.

And so a nation moves across the five stages of grief and loss, in my view in a matter of months.  Beyond acceptance, there is an emerging sense of a national, regional and local healing process: a conscious and concerted effort to restore trust and re-find the common ground.

I remember after the London bombings in 2005, foreign students reported feeling safer and more welcome: people would look out for each other, look up rather than down, make the effort to acknowledge their presence as if to say ‘Don’t think I might be thinking…’.

Today when an emphatic statement out-trumps any fact, let’s still ask where’s the evidence?  From isolated UK reports of racist attacks to the global irony of ‘Last Night in Sweden’, the national and international rhetoric must make foreigners feel less welcome.  

i-graduate asked them. 44, 971 non-British students studying in the UK in this academic cycle responded, from EU and non-EU countries*. The question was asked in three parts, addressing their perceptions on campus, in the local community/town/city and at a national UK level. The results are frankly astonishing. And inspiring. 

OK we might expect students to feel warm in their academic bubble: the refined environment of ivory towers, dreaming spires and socially inclusive students’ unions. To find “There is a friendly attitude towards EU/international students at my university (staff and students)” as a predominant view would not be surprising. The result <96%> was close to the limit of positivity: 95% of non-EU international students and 97% of EU students reported a friendly attitude.

At a national level, the screaming headlines from rag-tops to heavy reads to should-know-better-TV must have impacted on many.  Or might reports of a Boadicean Little Britain ring untrue?  In fact 91% of non-EU and EU students reported “I feel welcome as an EU/international student in this country”; 90% of non-EU and 92% of EU students.

In fact 91% of non-EU and EU students reported “I feel welcome as an EU/international student in this country”; 90% of non-EU and 92% of EU students.

For me the most heartening of all, and possibly the most powerful explanation for this positivity, is the response to the statement “There is a friendly attitude towards EU/international students at the city/location where my university is based (local population)”.  Surely the traditional tensions between town and gown run timeless and eternal?  In fact, in this current academic year, answering questions between October and December, four to six months after the Brexit vote, 93% of EU and non-EU students reported a friendly attitude in the community outside their university; 93% of non-EU students and 94% of EU students.  From Swansea to Sheffield to St Andrews and back again.

Sometimes it helps to reach beyond the rhetoric. As evidently the vast majority of people do.

Still much for the UK to resolve: not least EU student access and loans, plus foreign students for now still mystifyingly defined as migrants.  But if the politics can be resolved, the back story will be positive.  Whatever the challenges of the present, the key to future growth lies in the experiences of those who made the journey - and those they meet along the way. 

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*International Student Barometer, Autumn 2016, www.i-graduate.org
This article has been adapted for this blog. Full article is available here.

Will Archer

Will Archer

Founder, i-graduate

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