On 12 July 2018, the UK Government published its long-awaited White Paper on ‘The Future Relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union’. The foreword from the new Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, Dominic Raab, described it as ‘a vision that respects the result of the referendum and delivers a principled and practical Brexit.’

Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, one of the principal concerns for the higher education sector has been the free movement of people. The key principle set out in the White Paper is that Brexit will end the free movement of people to ‘control and reduce net migration’ (read our post on the proposed ‘framework for mobility’). Closely linked with this is the future of reciprocal access to and funding of higher education in the UK and other EU Member States post-Brexit. In this update we outline some of the key points on the movement of students and young people as set out in the Brexit White Paper.

Status Quo: the ‘European Higher Education Area’ and free movement

Within the EU, HE policies are decided at Member State level and each country has its own individual HE system; however, the EU has a supporting, facilitating and coordinating role in advancing HE across the European Union, for example through the Erasmus+ programme and the overarching funding framework Horizon 2020. The UK is part of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and currently the second-largest recipient of funding under Horizon 2020, after Germany.

At the moment, EU students and young people (UK and other EU nationalities) can move freely and under the same conditions (as to tuition fees etc.) around the EU, and not only under the Erasmus+ scheme: the four freedoms of the European single market provide for free and frictionless movement within the EU. The free movement of people is a founding principle of European integration and inexorably linked to EU citizenship.

Students’ rights during the transition period

The UK and the EU have already reached an in-principle agreement on citizens’ rights to provide certainty for EU citizens living in the UK, and UK citizens living in the EU, before and until the end of the expected transition or implementation period. This agreement will see individuals and their family members able to move, live, work and indeed study on the same basis as they can now up until 31 December 2020.

As the transition/implementation period is part of the Withdrawal Agreement, it is subject to a successful overall deal between the UK and the EU. While an agreement on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal is the likely outcome, governments, citizens and businesses are preparing for the event of a ‘no deal’ (for more information on the ‘no deal’ notices visit our Brexit Hub).

A ‘youth mobility scheme’ beyond 2020

The White Paper sets out the UK Government’s vision of the future: a new ‘framework for mobility’ to regulate UK-EU migration from 2012 onwards, while making sure that the UK remains ‘an open and tolerant nation’ and attracts ‘the brightest and best, from the EU and elsewhere.’ The paper proposes future reciprocal arrangements with the EU in some defined areas, including facilitated mobility for students and young people.

According to the White Paper ‘[t]he UK and the EU should continue to give young people and students the chance to benefit from each other’s world leading universities, including cultural exchanges such as Erasmus+.’ The proposed ‘youth mobility scheme’ would ‘ensure that young people can continue to enjoy the social, cultural and educational benefits of living in each other’s countries.’

The UK Government proposes to model the scheme on the already existing Tier 5 (Youth Mobility Scheme) visa. Any citizen (aged 18 to 30) of one of the 8 listed countries (e.g. Australia, Canada, and Japan) or of British overseas territories is eligible to apply for a Tier 5 visa if they can show that they have at least £1,890 in savings.

Non-EU students from countries not eligible for the Tier 5 visa can apply for the Tier 4 (General) student visa. Although the Brexit White Paper does not specify any details of the envisaged ‘youth mobility scheme’, it can probably be said that any future arrangement with the EU will be less complicated than the current Tier 4 which requires proof of sufficient knowledge of the English language, sufficient funds, and proof of an unconditional offer of a place on a course with a licensed Tier 4 sponsor.

The Common Travel Area between the UK, the Crown Dependencies (Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey) and Ireland is unaffected by these proposals and protected after the UK leaves the EU. This means that Irish citizens won’t be required to apply for ‘settled status’ or indeed apply for a visa under a new ‘youth mobility scheme’ to protect their entitlements in the UK. The rights to work, study, access social security and public services will be preserved on a reciprocal basis UK citizens will enjoy the same rights in Ireland). This means that Irish students will retain special status in the UK (and vice versa) after Brexit.

Non-discriminating post-Brexit future?

The White Paper states that ‘[t]he principle of non-discrimination between existing Member States should apply to all of the provisions agreed as part of the framework for mobility.’ It does not however provide further details on what this will entail. For example, does this mean that EU citizens will (at least) have ‘most favoured’ status, meaning that the UK will not be able to introduce less restrictive immigration arrangements for the citizens (or students) of any other country without also extending them to EU citizens/students? Or, perhaps, that any special treatment given to one EU Member State (other than Ireland) must also be extended to all the others?

If free movement is one of the sector’s chief post-Brexit concerns, tuition fees and funding is the other. At the moment, EU students pay the same tuition fees as UK students, meaning that in Scotland they have the same fee-free status as ‘domestic’ Scottish students (and HE in other EU countries is generally not subject to tuition fees). The UK Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, has recently confirmed for England that EU students starting in autumn 2019 will pay the same tuition fees as UK students, and that their access to support will be unchanged. The Welsh and Scottish Government have made similar commitments.

The question remains, however, whether EU students will remain entitled to pay the same lower tuition fee rates as ‘domestic’ students even after the end of the transition period. It is not clear whether the non-discrimination principle set out in the White Paper is intended to apply to tuition fees or benefits. With regards to Irish students, however, it seems to be the UK’s intention to maintain their rights to access higher education on equal terms with UK nationals. This could create a potential discrimination problem, if other EU citizens do not receive the same treatment after Brexit.

As for immediate post-Brexit funding, the UK and EU have already provisionally agreed that the UK will continue to participate in all Framework Programmes financed by the multiannual Finance Framework (MFF) 2014-2020 until their closure, including the Erasmus+ programme (in a recent speech, the EU Chief negotiator Michel Barnier reiterated that ‘We agreed that all decisions taken at 28 – i.e. by the EU including the UK – will be financed at 28’). The end of the MFF, including Horizon 2020, coincides with the end of the expected transition period on 31 December 2010.

While things have moved on since the Brexit White Paper, it does seem likely that, with a successful Brexit deal, the higher education sector in the UK will cope with the risks associated with Brexit. The future of EU students coming to the UK in the event of a ‘no deal’ however is uncertain. The UK Government has now released technical notices intended to prepare citizens and businesses for a ‘no deal’ scenario. The notice relevant for the sector is the ‘Erasmus+ in the UK if there’s no Brexit deal’ proposing that at least the Erasmus+ scheme will continue until the end of 2020.

We will produce more sector specific information in due course, so keep an eye on our Brexit Hub.