Here to study, not to stay: Eastern European students in the UK and Brexit

Eastern European students come to the UK driven by both political grievances at home and academic ambitions. Brexit is one of the reasons they leave. 

Romania, Poland and Bulgaria are amongst the top EU countries sending students to UK universities, according to the latest report published by the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA). After the Brexit referendum, there has been a decline in EU students for the 2017-18 academic year compared to the previous year. This drop is also reflected in UCAS statistics about EU applicants for the 2017 cycle. Although the number of first year students from Bulgaria has decreased by 4% after rising last year, enrolments from Romania and Poland have increased by 6.3%, and 14.6%, respectively, albeit at a slower rate than for 2016-2017. 

Political and economic instability is one of the reasons many young people from Eastern European countries choose to study abroad. Botond, a 2nd year History undergraduate at the London School of Economics, said he came to the UK “in flight of the authoritarian Hungarian regime and for the better academic possibilities.”

The UK is a particularly popular destination because of its high-ranking universities, international outlook, and accessible student loan system, said Sabina Horga, President of the UK branch of the League of Romanian Students Abroad. “Brexit might change that. Many prospective students from Romania are contacting us with worries about student visa applications and rising tuition fees,” she added.

Brexit does not affect current EU students in the UK. Universities are regularly sending emails to reassure students of their support and offer guidance services for settled status applications after 29 March 2019, when Brexit negotiations end. 

Eastern European students are planning to continue their careers away from the UK. Oleg, a 1st year International Relations student at King’s College London from Slovenia, wants to do a Masters after his undergraduate degree “maybe in the Netherlands or Germany.” He listed rising living costs in London and the possibility of a no-deal Brexit as the main reasons why he would leave the UK.

Brexit may decrease the competitiveness of UK graduate employers. “Future visa applications and other such procedures are a waste of time”, said Mihai, a Romanian student doing a masters degree in Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. However, he added that Brexit is unlikely to have an influence on his career decisions, as his main drive is to “find a job where I can progress and bring value to the company.”

Eastern European students are also considering returning to their home countries after their studies. This would have positive implications for private sectors across the region suffering from skilled labour shortage, and also for the rising non-governmental sectors and public administrations.

For many, the decision to return depends on the political climate. “I might want to go work in Hungarian politics, but, if the current track of democratic backsliding continues, I am not so sure about that” Botond said, adding he hopes to “go home one day to live and work in and for a free and democratic Hungary.” 

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