Mixed levels of excitement from students as Christmas Eve deal sheds light on Government plans to support Universities after Brexit

The recent Christmas Eve announcement of the details of a post-Brexit deal between the UK and the European Union brought with it some clarity on the programmes that will support university students in Northern Ireland. Now, with a much clearer idea on the way forward than has been available in recent years, student campaigners and activists are taking some time to reflect on just what long term effects Brexit will have on higher education.

Ulster University has physically expanded thanks, in part, to EU grants. One such grant helped build the Biomedical building on the UU Coleraine Campus.

Along with this new deal, the UK Government announced its plans to launch the ‘Turing Scheme’, a £100 million programme to aid in allowing students to go abroad for work or extra studying, as a replacement to the EU’s ‘Erasmus Plus’. Prime Minister Boris Johnston said that the scheme would mean that UK students would now have the “opportunity…to go to the best universities in the world”, as opposed to just in Europe. However, it was also announced by the Republic of Ireland’s Higher Education Minister, Simon Harris, that students in Northern Ireland could still avail of ‘Erasmus Plus’ through the Irish Government, giving universities here a bit of choice in their direction.

Collette Cassidy, the President of the Ulster University Students’ Union (UUSU), welcomes the news that there is more than one route available for the universities in Northern Ireland as they try to keep up the exchange of students with other organisations abroad. Speaking in an interview, Miss Cassidy said that, in the university’s recent ‘Brexit Readiness Meetings’, she’s “had a lot of discussions around this agreement, and one of the big ones is around ‘Erasmus Plus’ and the Irish Government saying they’d fund that, and obviously talking about the ‘Turing Scheme’ as well, as an alternative programme.”

“There’s not really much detail on either the ‘Turing Scheme’ or the ‘Erasmus Plus’ funding from the Irish Government, but there are two options there the University can consider, and, as the weeks go on, we’ll see what scheme Ulster University will really go with. For now, both look good, and seem like really good opportunities for students.”

The UUSU President went on to say that the part Brexit plays on student activist’s minds has seen a definite decrease after years of seemingly no movement and some backwards progress. This growing Brexit fatigue has only spread faster over this last year, with a certain worldwide issue, that needs not be named, being more at the forefront of student concerns.

On this apathy that has formed in the student movement, Miss Cassidy said: “The university’s ‘Brexit Readiness Group’ has a dedicated email to answer any queries or help with any concerns. However, apart from the very odd email from new students who want to know details ahead of the next academic year, the questions have been really quiet, particularly during the Christmas period. The Brexit group was thinking that be the time when the inquiries would come in strong, but there were actually nil.”

“I think COVID has really hit Brexit in a way, and the things at the forefronts of people’s minds right now are tuition fees, accommodation and then, of course, how their actual year of study will work out. We do believe though, near the end of the year, around that April/May time, that we’ll get more interest, particularly from students from the Republic [of Ireland].”

Also in attendance at this interview was Nicole Parkinson-Kelly, the UUSU Vice-President for Education, who added that: “it’ll be interesting to see what input the university gets from those who will move to Northern Ireland over the Summer period for study. We obviously have our International Rep on student council who will convey many concerns, but we particularly hope to get feedback from a lot of those EU students who want to be heard, and it may be about creating some sort of group to help with that communication. Either way, this silence will hopefully not last, but we just have to wait for Brexit to be on student’s minds again”.

 This apathy on campus to the ramifications of Brexit is not just a trend for the campuses of Ulster University, as Queen’s have been feeling it too. Matthew Bell, the Chair of QUB Young Unionist’s, the youth branch of the Ulster Unionist Party, says student activism surrounding Brexit “isn’t what it used to be”. The final-year Politics student said that “[Brexit] is not really front and centre anymore. There used to be quite regular anti-Brexit protests on campus, and you would see party signs amongst that for SDLP and Alliance and some others. Even before COVID took over, those were becoming less frequent but any of that’s almost fully gone”.

QUB YU Chair Matthew Bell, pictured here after laying a wreath on Remembrance Day, on the behalf of his society.

On Brexit itself, Mr Bell says that despite being a staunch ‘Remainer’ back in 2016, he thinks the UK should see the vote through and get a deal passed, saying that “[he] stand[s] by that the United Kingdom voted to leave and we should be standing by the democratic will of the people. So far, the only real effect of Brexit most students have felt on campus has been a bit of a delay in their Amazon packages. Hopefully, we will be able to leave the EU in a way which keeps any negative effects on students to a minimum.”

Though this isn’t perhaps the most optimistic way to think, the UUSU President did have one slightly more positive view, that being that Brexit has brought the spotlight onto the welfare of students. Miss Cassidy pointed out her belief that “it is only when something big happens that students are really thought about and that can be used to bring more attention to other issues than just the one at hand. I’m not going to say that Brexit’s been great, but it has opened up a lot of conversations for the Student Unions”.

Active and involved members of Northern Ireland’s universities may not be certain which way Brexit will work out for them, but at least recent announcements have made things a bit clearer going forward, even if their Amazon deliveries continue to take a bit longer.