Brexit impact on students revealed in Union report

15 mins read
Credit: Harry Williamson

The Student’s Union has published its report on the impact of Brexit on international students. The report, titled ‘The Impact of Brexit on the International Student Experience at Stirling’, was authored by Union President Astrid Smallenbroek and Democracy and Research Coordinator Amy Eberlin.

The report describes Brexit’s impact on higher education in Scotland as “unquestionable” and cites a “clear demand for research into the potential impacts of Brexit on the lucrative UK higher education sector since the EU Referendum.” Further motivations for the research was the impact of Brexit on university staff and academics, citing a University and College Union (UCU) survey in 2017 which found that 76% of non-EU UK academics are more likely to leave UK universities, and 29% of members knew academics who had already left the UK.

The report cites Hobson’s 2016 International Student Survey, which shows that 42.7% of International students said Brexit had impacted whether they wanted to study in the UK, 82.9% of students said that they were now less likely to come and study at a UK university, with only 17.1% of these students saying that they are more likely to study at a UK university.

The study found that the most common reason for students being less likely to study in the UK was the perception that, after Brexit, the UK was a less welcoming country for international students. This report also stated that because Stirling has such a high international student population (23%) then it was an ideal university to research the impact of Brexit and the EU Referendum result on international students.

The union carried out research for the report by sending a ten-question survey to international students in the August of 2017, it was advertised online, through social media and the union used flyers. The survey asked international students whether they felt as if their experience as a student in Scotland had changed following the EU referendum result and asked these students to discuss ways that the University of Stirling and the Student’s Union could work on the support provided to them.

The union survey had 159 respondents, 111 of these students were from the European Union, 36 were from outside the EU and EEA, 4 were from the European Economic Area, 4 students were from Scotland, and 3 students did not give any information regarding where they were from.

The union then carried out focus groups and interviews in the Spring of 2018. The President and Democracy and Research coordinator held 4 focus groups throughout the semester. 17 students took part across the 4 focus groups and met for half an hour to discuss their student experience regarding Brexit. Seven individual interviews then took place to get students to discuss their experience.

The union report: “resulted in a greater understanding of the diverse and differing experiences of the international student community at Stirling, the development of specific and directed support for international students, and an increasing emphasis on the value of cultural change between British, EU and international students within the international student community.”

This research flagged up key themes in the experience of international students regarding Brexit, the challenges facing students transitioning to university, a welcoming community, and fear of the unknown.

Image result for brexit
Credit: Centre for International Governance Innovation

Challenges with transitioning to university life are said to be difficult for all students, the report explains that these challenges may be more difficult for international students because they are living in a new country, with a different culture and speaking a second language.

The report highlighted that it was common for international students to talk about cultural changes and differences impacting their educational experience. One student spoke about student finance, and how being an international student made this more difficult to understand:

“And, just, like finances, but not to do with the universities, but, like, just money generally, because you’re not used to that currency, so obviously it’s a bit harder to get.”

Other students spoke about the challenge of speaking a new language and understanding Scottish accents, and the difficulties caused by this: “It’s kind of the little things, and, like for me, the language was kind of hard for me at the start. Like, even though most lecturers are talking plain, simple, English, the accent, there’s still words that you don’t understand.”

The fact that international students are further away from home and their families was brought up in the report, students said that the experience of moving away from home for the first time can be daunting for all students, but this experience can be more daunting for international students due to the distance between them and their homes.

One student said: “I’m pretty sure that a lot of students go through these things, absolutely. I have some friends that are from, say, Shetland, from the UK in general, from England or from Scotland. They come from, say, Glasgow or Edinburgh, which is literally not that far from Stirling and they also mentioned that it was quite difficult at the beginning. I guess it’s quite a uniform experience for everyone, but I guess it’s just a bit stronger for international students.”

The report spoke about the benefit of a welcoming community, and that international students felt as if the University of Stirling had a very welcoming environment for international students. A major factor contributing to this was the number of international students at the university.

One student said: “It’s really interesting when there’s so many international students, so many nationalities, it’s really cool and I just think there’s a really welcoming environment to it.” Another student said that the university is so multicultural and that this is important to international students.

The report said that the variety of international students helped students feel as if their university experience was “enriched by different cultures and perspectives.”

Others said that because there are so many international students, they can celebrate cultural traditions that are not celebrated in the UK with other students who celebrate the same traditions which contributed, some described it as a “bonding experience.”

In terms of feeling welcome out with the university, the report said that many international students felt welcome in Scotland after Brexit, but not in the rest of the UK. The report said: “many students expressed a comfort in Scotland, but not necessarily in the wider United Kingdom.” On the topic of feeling welcome in Scotland one student said: “I just feel, like, really welcome here.”

The report highlighted that many international students felt as if perceptions of the UK had changed for them, and how after the EU Referendum they felt unwelcome in the UK.
“The [perception of the UK] has definitely changed towards, like, a negative rather than a positive because we don’t feel as welcome as we did two years ago.” One student said.
“I feel more scared in general now, I think I would be anxious maybe down in England”, another added.

The report claims that many students “expressed negative feelings towards the rest of the UK,” mentioning a growing feeling that they feel unwelcome in the UK, and that they felt welcome in Scotland due to every Scottish local authority area voting to remain in the EU in 2016.
The report says that Brexit has impacted international student’s sense of belonging in the UK.

Fear of the unknown and growing uncertainty surrounding Brexit was the final key theme raised in the report. Many students said that they felt a lack of certainty and clarity about their future. The lack of information regarding their status and rights was a concern for many.

“I just don’t know because Brexit is next year, I don’t know what rights I will have, I don’t know if I’ll need a special visa requirement, some kind of ribbon around my arm.”
This uncertainty makes it difficult for international students to plan for the future, some students felt that they are unable to plan due to this uncertainty.

On the topic of uncertainty, one student said: “The unknown surrounding the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union had already fundamentally impacted the experience of international students – a continuing lack of clarity around the implications of Brexit on international students within the UK more broadly, and Scotland specifically, will continue to negatively impact our international student communities. Summing up an important issue for students, I wouldn’t say I’m worried about you [the UK] leaving the EU. I’m more worried about not having enough information about it.”

The report concluded that there should be a “growing focus” on providing clarity, as much as possible, throughout the Brexit process to combat uncertainty, and to ensure that “international student communities are provided with as much information as possible about the future.”

Credit: LEXVISA Solicitors

The union has printed leaflets, posters, and business cards to help inform Stirling students about the findings of the report and meet the “clearly identified need” for more information on Brexit.

Students will be provided with up to date information on Brexit at several Brexit Information Sessions (arranged by the Student’s Union and University of Stirling) that will be led by a specialist immigration lawyer, these sessions are due to take place September, November, February, and April and cover any developments in the Brexit process and any impact on student life that this will have.

The union have organised an event to present these findings to senior management staff, such as the Principal, and any university staff who work directly with the European Union, the presentation and afterwards discussion will aim to equip staff with information to support the international student community.

The union has also planned more events for international students, after calls for more international focused events, such as the “Dialogue Dinner” in which a national cuisine will be offered and then a discussion on an intercultural topic.

Student’s Union President and co-author of the report Astrid Smallenbroek released a statement to Brig on the report, saying: “The University of Stirling Students’ Union has completed a UKCISA (UK Council for International Student Affairs) funded research project into how international students are impacted throughout the Brexit process.

“One of the main findings from this project were the worries which international students were having, due to the lack of information surrounding what leaving the EU could mean to them. In response to the research findings, Stirling Students’ Union, in partnership with the University of Stirling, have secured information sessions run by an immigration lawyer for international students about Brexit. Students can book onto these sessions and get more information by visiting the student union website.”

The report reflected that “all UK higher education institutions should proactively work with their international student communities” to provide support. It also identified a need for clear communication and information regarding the UK’s departure from the European Union.

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Freelance award-winning journalist | Best Journalist SPARC Scotland 2021 | Stirling Uni Class of 2021 | Former Deputy Editor - Brig Newspaper | Bylines in The Scottish Sun, The Alloa and Hillfoots Advertiser, The Barrhead News, The (Renfrew and Johnstone) Gazette, Brig Newspaper, The Oban Times, Stirling Today and Tales From Lockdown.

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