Modern Language students studying in Northern Ireland say they have been left in limbo as the Brexit deadline looms.
For most language students, spending a year abroad in EU countries is a compulsory part of their studies. EU and UK students alike are now being advised to contact their educational institutions about new issues which may lie in their way of studying.
Without a visa, EU students will now be restricted to six months of studying abroad, while UK students are only permitted to study abroad for 90 days out of every 180.
Nineteen-year-old Bea Holland studies French and Portuguese. This year she has a class designated to planning her year abroad and she is worried about the possibility of not being able to finance it.
“Though it’s seemingly been postponed due to the virus, we’re being told they don’t know enough to help us plan cause of Brexit, and not to bank on being able to get an Erasmus grant, which would mean it is unfundable otherwise.”
From 1987, the EU funded Erasmus Scheme has facilitated student exchanges, work placements, and collaborations with international partners throughout the EU. The scheme provides funding for more than 50% of UK university students who spend time studying abroad.
According to Jane Racz, director of the programme in the UK, almost €1 billion has been distributed to UK Erasmus+ projects since 2014. This has directly benefited over 930,000 participants.
Bea feels as though she’s been left in the dark and is worried that she is preparing for a year abroad that won’t happen.
“Despite us asking for clarity from Universities and Government, they’re telling us nothing and saying they’ll get to us eventually, but my year abroad is looming, and I know nothing at all.”
In January of this year, the Government voted against a new clause to the Brexit Bill which would tighten their obligation to prioritise the UK’s Erasmus membership in negotiations.
Despite this, they are continuing to encourage future submissions so that UK participation within the programmes can progress as normal in the event of a secure withdrawal agreement.
The Department for Education have also committed themselves to continuing the academic relationship between the UK and EU, “if it is in our interests to do so.”
Some non-EU countries already participate in the programme, such as Iceland, Norway and Turkey, who are known as “programme members”. However, in the event that the UK government decides they would like a similar relationship, they may not have enough time to negotiate terms before the start of the next cycle. This could leave UK students without access to programmes for a period of time and could prevent EU students from studying here.
Depending on the outcome of the negotiations, the UK could still leave the Erasmus scheme. The government have already announced they are considering a wide range of new options, including a “domestic alternative”.
However, a report released by the House of Lords EU Committee revealed that the benefits of the Erasmus programme would be very difficult to replicate in a national programme. They also warned that leaving Erasmus would “disproportionately affect people from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with medical needs or disabilities”.
Peter Galt, a 19-year-old French and Spanish student, is hoping to work as a language assistant in Spain Next year. He’s worried about the future for languages students, like himself, who cannot afford to self-fund their year abroad
“Living abroad is compulsory as part of my degree, and essential to improve not only my language but gain invaluable experience in all areas.”
“Languages students rely on the Erasmus grant to fund and survive our year abroad.
“Brexit could deny some students from working class backgrounds the opportunity to study abroad.”
The Erasmus programme produces a high amount of revenue for the UK Government, Tourism UK and Universities. It attracts potential students from across the UK and internationally, bringing around 140,000 EU nationals to the UK ever year.
Inma Huertas is a Spanish student studying Criminology at Queen’s University Belfast. She says she thinks Brexit will dissuade students thinking about coming to the UK.
“Just the fact that we have to apply to get a visa would make things harder.
“The university fees will probably rise to the level of international student fees, which are – at least in comparison to my country – ten times more expensive.”
After beginning her studies with Erasmus, Inma has now had to apply for the government’s pre-settlement scheme to guarantee her ability to continue studying after graduation. She said she choose to study in the UK because there was a “better quality of life and education.”
“I’ve been working here too so I didn’t have many problems to get it, but I know students who have been waiting for it for months even though they were here much more time than I was.”
Inma faced some difficulty when she tried to get her National Insurance Number.
“I was told that I didn’t have the right to work in here. Thanks to the Students Union I knew that was not the case and that the man who told me that was imposing his biased views on me.”
“It just makes me think how many people had to go through a similar experience and how barriers have a negative impact on students like me.”
Like many other students, Benjamin Farr is a strong advocate for maintaining the UK’s involvement in Erasmus. He was due to spend 2020 in Portugal, but his second semester was cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s a pity that free movement is going to end; it was the most beautiful thing about the EU – the ability to go between all of the different countries, sampling culture and language alike – all without worrying about any sort of extra documentation. Who knows what will happen?”
Amy Murray is a QUB Music Graduate and current Journalism MA student at Ulster Univeristy. She has a passion for Cultural, Social and Solutions Journalism. She represented Northern Ireland at the British Council’s Future News Worldwide Conference in 2019.