It’s been a tumultuous time for UK language students studying or working abroad this academic year. They have suffered serious disruption thanks to the pandemic, with many having to self-isolate in both directions to be able to spend the Christmas period in the UK.
However, Covid is not the only curveball being thrown their way since they also have the reality of Brexit to contend with. The transition period ended on December 31st 2020 and from 1 January, UK students ceased to be EU citizens. The UK is now considered a third country by EU member states and the practical repercussions of this are not insignificant. Students will now need a visa for any stay over 90 days. In some cases, they also need to prove they have sufficient funds to support themselves and this can be as much as €6000. Many currently on their year abroad are finding it difficult to access accurate information about the new documentation they are expected to have. Those studying two languages, who need to change locations part way through the year, are experiencing even more difficulties and it’s not surprising that all of these students are finding the uncertainty of their status abroad extremely stressful.
An article in The Guardian from the 23 February drew attention to this issue and having noticed a quote from a professor at a university within our local area, I decided to contact her to find out more. Julia Waters, Professor of French and Year Abroad Coordinator for the Department of Languages and Cultures at Reading University, kindly agreed to answer my questions regarding the difficulties that students on their year abroad are currently facing.
CR: How many Reading University students are part way through their year abroad? What has the impact been on them from both Covid and Brexit?
JW: There are currently 70 languages students from Reading on their Year Abroad, all of whom have been affected, to a lesser or greater degree, by the double-whammy of Covid and Brexit. Obviously, Reading is far from alone in this: the problems faced by our students are replicated in universities across the country. This cohort of students were already part-way through their Year Abroad when the transition period ended – but this did not immunise them from the immediate impact of Brexit and their sudden change in status from EU citizens with full freedom of movement, to non-EU nationals with no such entitlements. Students have been differently affected, depending on their particular situation: whether spending the full year in one country or dividing their time between two countries/languages; whether studying, working or a combination of the two; whether they came back to the UK over New Year or stayed in the EU.
The worst-hit have been students trying to go or return to Spain after the New Year. Spain has imposed a Covid-related ban on all incoming travel, but with an exemption for EU citizens, which now no longer applies to UK students. So, although some of our students had been in Spain before Christmas and had all the documents that FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office) and Spanish government websites told them they would need, several were turned back at the airport. Two particularly determined students spent hundreds of pounds to employ a Spanish lawyer to get their paperwork sorted out and find a loophole in order to be able to return. Many others are still stuck in the UK, doing classes online, as the travel ban is repeatedly extended. A couple were unable to get to Spain to register at university in person before the start of term and so their registration has been refused.
There are also a handful of Joint Honours students who are still in their first country and who face huge administrative complications when travelling to their second – including possibly having to return to the UK to apply for a visa and then facing the prospect of Covid isolation and other restrictions in both directions.
CR: What would you like to see the government do to help resolve the situation?
JW: We need clarity. The official guidance, on FCDO and foreign government websites, is inadequate. There are lots of ‘you may need’ phrases which are no help at all to students who need to know what they need now. Host universities and employers in the EU are unclear what the new requirements are and have been providing students with inconsistent advice. Some countries require students to prove that they have sufficient funds (either 1,000s of pounds in a bank account or a regular monthly income of £600-800) for the duration of their stay. But much of this information is provided on the official sites. Although travelling armed with piles of paperwork (proof of study or work placement; proof of status as students; proof of residency or an appointment to obtain a residency card; guarantor’s statement or bank statement; proof of medical insurance and EHIC; proof of Erasmus funding…), some students have still been refused entry. It’s a mess and the poor students are stuck in the middle of it all. The pressure on already overstretched academic staff has also been immense.
CR: The UK is set to leave the Erasmus scheme at the end of this academic year, with the government’s replacement, the Turing scheme, coming into force in September. How does the new scheme compare with Erasmus and will Reading University participate?
JW: Reading University, like other universities, will apply to participate in the Turing scheme, even though it is still unclear quite how funds will be allocated. While the Turing scheme may provide opportunities for students to study in non-EU countries, this perceived advantage will not apply to the vast majority of existing, European exchanges.
The main problems that I foresee with the Turing scheme – and I’m not the only one to have identified these – are that Erasmus is based on a reciprocal, partnership model and it’s not clear how this will be replicated with Turing. As an EU-funded scheme, Erasmus ensures the mutual waiver of tuition fees and recognition of qualifications, so providing a framework for exchange that is arguably more important than the student funding itself. Erasmus funding is also allocated over a cycle of several years, allowing universities to build long-term relationships and ensure from before the start of a 4-year languages degree, that the student will have a choice of exchange opportunities and be eligible for funding support. The one-year model of the Turing Scheme does not allow for such forward planning and is likely to make administration extremely onerous. Erasmus does not just support student mobility (as will Turing) – it also supports knowledge transfer partnerships, staff training exchanges and other strategic, collaborative projects between institutions and countries. Withdrawing from Erasmus’ long-standing administrative framework, reciprocal arrangements and long-established funding processes, and starting from scratch at very short notice, seems highly risky.
Since I spoke to Professor Waters, more information has come to light about the government’s Turing scheme which suggests that funding is indeed significantly lower than what was offered under the Erasmus scheme. Students wishing to take part will end up paying more, which makes it hard to understand claims that the Turing scheme would widen participation for students from lower income backgrounds. Students also face unavoidable additional costs as a result of Brexit; for visas, work permits, residency cards, roaming charges, etc.
Another weakness of the Turing scheme is that unlike Erasmus, it does not currently extend to incoming students. This means that the UK loses the chance to host young people from Europe. The lack of reciprocity may also make it more difficult for UK institutions to retain foreign partnerships or secure new ones.
The current generation of young people had no chance to vote in the 2016 referendum, but they are already experiencing the consequences of Brexit, none more so than foreign language students. The practicalities of the year abroad have become more complicated and costly whilst the opportunities for future year abroad students are currently unclear. Leaving the ready-made and successful Erasmus scheme seems like an unnecessary own-goal by a government that continually promotes the idea of ‘global Britain’. There are undoubtedly more questions to be asked about the Turing scheme and it will face much scrutiny by those who have experienced the benefits of Erasmus.