To say British politics this summer has been a bit turbulent is like saying the Iraq war was possibly not the best idea, or that Pokémon Go is being played by a few people. Technically true, yes, but underselling it beyond recognition. The UK has voted to leave the European Union, the Labour Party has turned into There Will Be Blood and in the last few weeks most of our government has been thrown out and replaced. All of this will have huge implications for all sections of British society, but how will it affect students?
Firstly; Brexit. This has already had an impact on researchers, who are losing out on projects with EU countries. For instance, Sheffield Hallam’s vice chancellor, Chris Husbands, told Newsnight that on four of its twelve projects, EU partners have said they should no longer be involved, due to the lack of certainty in the UK’s future membership. For undergraduate students, however, little will change in the short-term – universities have stressed that everything will carry on as normal for the time being. Nancy Rothwell, the president and vice chancellor of the University of Manchester, in a statement shortly after the results were announced, stressed that all international students will be able to keep their current status throughout their entire studies and that EU grants and collaborations should remain the same until we have actually left the EU.
Once Brexit has been carried out though, the impact could be huge. As mentioned, funding will likely drop for research programmes – according to Full Fact, the EU provides around 15% of universities’ research budget, and so a lot of research may no longer be financially viable. In addition, tuition fees for EU students will increase from domestic to international. At the University of Manchester this will mean a rise from £9,000 a year to between £15,500 and £35,000, depending on the course. Over 27,000 EU students currently study in the UK, but the increase in fees makes it fair to assume that far less students from European countries will attend British universities in the future. This will cause a decrease in the diversity and internationalism that many UK universities have enjoyed and celebrated for decades. This will go both ways – EU exchange programmes such as Erasmus provide British students with the opportunity to study all over Europe for no extra cost beyond standard UK tuition fees. From 2008 to 2015 the number of UK students participating in Erasmus more than doubled. This massive increase will likely be put to a halt – although Norway also participates in the Erasmus scheme, it has to accept freedom of movement to do so, according to the group Universities UK. Given blocks on immigration were a huge part of the Brexit campaign, it is unlikely that the UK will do the same. Whilst there are alternative exchange programmes with many other nations across the world, these are more expensive and difficult, requiring visas and extra documentation and costs. As a last word on Brexit, it is worth noting that young people overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU. 75 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted to remain rather than leave. This could mean growing divisions and disconnections between younger and older people. The resulting tensions and frustrations also could be damaging to wider society, where the young feel betrayed by the old, and vice-versa.
The second major political event of the summer has been the battle over the Labour leadership. Whilst this may not immediately seem to be connected to students, as Labour are currently in opposition, in practice this will have a huge impact on students for many years to come. Labour is currently at something of a crossroads – New Labour is largely seen as no longer working, and so the party needs a new way forward, to shape its ideals and ambitions for the next generation or so. The positions of the current two candidates therefore could be vital for students, should Labour return to government in the next two or three elections. Corbyn has long held a pledge to abolish tuition fees completely, whilst Smith is a more unknown quantity – he voted against increasing tuition fees to £9000 a year, but has not provided any specifics beyond that. He claims to be a socialist and to agree with Corbyn on most issues, so it is possible that he backs abolishing tuition fees, or at least cutting them or not raising them further. However, without definitive comment, it is impossible to know where he stands at present. We reached out for comment, but received no reply. The other, more immediate impact on students is the weakness of a divided Labour Party, which is in no fit state to provide serious opposition to the government. Without unity, the party cannot challenge government plans to raise tuition fees above £9,000 a year, or to increase restrictions on student visas. The Conservatives have a very slim majority, and so a focussed opposition could force them to back down on these platforms. Until the leadership battle ends in September, however, the Labour Party is still both in limbo in terms of policy, and unable to provide a strong opposition to May’s new government.
The final major change in UK politics has been the resignation of Cameron, the unopposed election of May and a very different government. This new leadership will likely affect students’ lives in many different ways, but at the moment there are just two direct points of impact. One of these is the planned increase of tuition fees in line with inflation. This means that from 2017 students could be paying up to £9,250, depending on the teaching quality of the university. This could even apply to students who have already begun university, depending on their institution’s student contract. The Chairman of the Sutton Trust, Sir Peter Lampl, told the Independent that this increase in tuition fees, combined with the abolition of maintenance grants, will deter poorer students in particular from applying. He also highlighted that upon finishing university, students face debts of over £50,000, yet will still have to start repaying once they earn £21,000 a year, and that this threshold will not increase with fees. The other main plan affecting students is a renewed push to limit student visas, in order to lower immigration. Despite it recently being revealed that May’s actions as Home Secretary led to over 48,000 students being wrongly deported, the Prime Minister still believes more can be done. Potential plans currently include more steps to ensure foreign students leave as soon as they finish their degree, banning universities from advertising courses as a way for foreign students to work in the UK, and banning foreign students from taking courses seen as weaker – so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ subjects. The combined effect of both of these seems to be to use students in order to achieve other goals – cutting immigration and reducing government spending by letting unviersities raise the funds themselves. This is unsurprising – students are not traditionally Conservative voters, so the Tories can keep their traditional support base whilst also perhaps gaining embittered Labour voters who now back UKIP – the white working class men are the least likely to go to university (only 29% go on to any form of higher education after 16, according to the Sutton Trust), and the poorest areas of the UK supported Brexit the most.
So to sum up – what can we expect the long term effects of the summer to be on students? Basically two things – university will become more expensive, and we will have far less interaction with foreign universities and their students at all levels, from exchanges to research programmes. What the future impacts will be remains to be seen, but at the moment the Conservatives are largely following Brexit in terms of limiting international movement and diversity in UK universities. Whether tuition fees continue to rise will depend on whether Labour can rally around and attempt to block the Conservatives, or get into government themselves. However Labour’s own policies and future platforms will be decided for a long time to come by the outcome of this leadership election. The summer has been dramatic, and has dropped much of the UK into a period of uncertainty, universities and students included. At the moment it looks like things will get more difficult for all involved in higher education, however it is too early to know for certain.