How Brexit has Impacted on European Union Students

When the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, people were left with no idea what was to happen next. This impacted on all parts of the United Kingdom, especially Northern Ireland.

Students were seemingly left in the dark on how their education would be impacted because of the decision. This is a problem that has still not been fully resolved.

One example of how Brexit has impacted higher education comes from U.K. students planning to study abroad. Northern Irish students, as well as those from the U.K. mainland are not able to partake in the Erasmus+ scheme, which in the past allowed easy travel for students to learn their academics in a different country. According to a Department of Economy statement, following Brexit ‘the U.K. Government opted not to participate as a Programme Country in the EU’s Erasmus+ programme for 2021-27’. However, the Turning scheme, which provides funds for international education opportunities, has been instated to give U.K. students the chance to study abroad. 

Figures from the Royal Irish Academy show that around 2017, nearly one third of academic staff at Ulster University and Queens University Belfast were made up of those from the European Union. Two in 33 student enrolments for the 2016 academic year were made up of students from European Union countries. 

Research from the Political Studies Association show that students from outside Northern Ireland make up £78,000,000 for the Northern Irish economy, supporting around 800 jobs. This shows how important students from the European Union are to the local economy, as well as both local academic institutes. 

Brexit has had a major impact on students from the Republic of Ireland studying in the North. Pádraig Ó Searcaigh is a third-year student from Buncrana, studying in Coleraine.

According to Pádraig, those studying in Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland are not charged international fees, as students from other countries within the European Union are. ‘Anybody from the Republic of Ireland doesn’t have to pay the international fees, they pay the same as any other student from the six counties’. ‘As a student who travels across the border, I was relieved to find that fees weren’t any different’. 

Pádraig says that Brexit has had a ‘mixed’ impact on students. ‘The positives are that a lot of U.K. universities have retained a lot of students that would’ve went elsewhere’. However, Pádraig also says there are negative impacts of Brexit on students. ‘If somebody has access only to a British passport and they want to study in the Republic of Ireland or mainland Europe, then they would lose out on free education’.

Pádraig adds that ‘many students from mainland Europe would be turning a blind eye to thinking of going to the U.K now due to the rising costs. Why go here when they can get free education in many of their own countries?’

The U.K. government has committed to attempting to continue supporting students by allowing them to use facilities in European Union countries, through the Horizon Europe programme. According to the Department for Economy statement, ‘association status would give N.I. scientists, researchers, academics and businesses access to funding under the programme in equivalent terms as institutions, research organisations and business in E.U. countries. To date, however, the E.U. has not yet formalised the U.K.’s association to the programme.  The U.K. Government’s priority remains to associate to Horizon Europe, and they continue to work with the E.U. to secure association as soon as possible.’


Flavia Gouveia is a masters student at Ulster University, who studied her undergraduate at Queen’s University Belfast. She joined Queen’s during a grace period after Brexit. Flavia’s status as an E.U. student led her to get overcharged with her fees. ‘Essentially since Brexit as I am an E.U. national (Portuguese) I have had to rely on the E.U. settlement scheme, where E.U. nationals who had lived in the U.K. for a certain period of time were granted ‘indefinite leave to remain’. What the scheme does is it guarantees our residency in the U.K. and our right to work and study’. 

Flavia added that ‘my application to the masters was affected because of this as there is no route to apply as an E.U. national who has indefinite leave to remain, so, I had to apply as an international student (non U.K. and not Irish national). While I was told this was just so that my visa status could be confirmed and so in theory the process wouldn’t be any different, I was actually processed as an international student.’ 

Flavia added ‘my first communications with the university when my place was confirmed stated that my fees would be international fees. Because this is a new process confirming my status was quite hard and I ended up having to fill in a number of forms and send quite a few emails where I tried to confirm my status and sort out the situation with my fees’. Flavia was able to fix the situation regarding her fees, but this process was made more difficult due to Brexit. 

Pádraig echoed Flavia’s problems with the impacts on fees. Pádraig says that students from the Republic of Ireland studying in Northern Ireland are not given the necessary funding that they had pre-Brexit. The Student Universal Support Ireland [SUSI] grant is the Irish student support financial package. Pádraig says that ‘the student finance in the Republic, the SUSI grant, is still going to cover some money, as it did pre-Brexit, but it isn’t going to cover my fees as it did pre-Brexit’. ‘I still get money every month to cover living costs via the SUSI grant’. Pádraig compares this to his brother, who studies in Sligo, where the SUSI grant covers the full fees of his course. This shows the impact of Brexit in student loans from the Republic of Ireland. Pádraig and Flavia’s fees had changed due to Brexit, with both having very different experiences than what they would have ended up with ten years ago.

Queen’s University Belfast Student Union President Emma Murphy would not comment on her thoughts on how Brexit has impacted on students. Ulster University Student’s Union President Grace Boyle was unavailable for comment. 

From this, we can see that European Union students wanting to study in Northern Ireland have been given very different treatment depending on when they decided to move here, as well as where they came from.