Sunday Longread: As the transition period ends, Brexit finally takes hold

Anna Sheehan explores the consequences of Brexit on Irish students

Whilst 2020 will doubtless earn a sweeping spot in the history annals, it’s amusing to reflect on 2016, a year which, at the time, sparked political chaos amid two of the world’s most powerful nations. When the UK voted to leave the EU and the US elected a reality TV star to The Oval Office, an unparalleled shaping of politics began permeating the globe. Alas, many were indignant that the limits had been reached in terms of political outlandishness and absurdity. But as Murphy’s Law encapsulates, just when one reckons things cannot possibly get any worse, they normally do. And five years down the line, as one chapter has finally drawn to a close, the other is unfortunately only on the cusp of unleashing its wrath.

Last month, the United Kingdom’s Brexit transition period expired, and the nation drew the line on a 48-year relationship with the EU. By abolishing its ties with the European project, Britain departed the single market and customs union, the structures which support the free movement of money, goods, people and services across the bloc’s borders. 

While the Withdrawal Agreement prevented Ireland’s neighbouring isle from depositing a trail of utter destruction in its path, there’s no denying it will induce many a quandary for the Irish people, both financially and logistically.

Regarding Brexit’s main impacts, it’s no breaking news that Irish companies will lose their legally enforceable EU-level rights when dealing with British companies. In further common knowledge, Irish people may now incur customs charges when buying goods from the UK. While such impacts are certainly relevant on a general level, the question remains as to how Brexit will alter the lives of Ireland’s student cohort specifically.  

Under the circumstances of Brexit, the European Union (EU)/ European Economic Area (EEA) and Swiss students will forfeit their home fee status in England from the beginning of the 2021/22 academic year. In other words, they will no longer qualify for the same tuition fees and financial aid as UK domestic students. 

Luckily for Irish citizens, though, the Common Travel Area arrangement between Ireland and the UK ensures that their rights to study and access UK benefits and services will be protected on a reciprocal basis. Irish students planning to undertake an undergraduate or postgraduate degree at an English university will therefore continue to pay the same fees as before. However, the real disparity will be noted by those with intentions to study in Scotland or Wales in the coming years. 

 Up until now, Scotland was a haven for Irish students, who relished the privilege of paying home rule fees on most courses. Furthermore, the NHS covered the fees of Irish students pursuing healthcare degrees in Scotland. Post-Brexit, however,  Irish students choosing to study in Scotland will be liable to a £9,250 annual fee – the same as what they currently pay to study in England. Students choosing a programme in a Welsh university will be subject to a maximum of £9,000, which is twice the previous course rates.

 While this evolution will surely dissuade Irish students from studying in Scotland or Wales, predicting the outcome of the English situation is a more delicate task, as no financial adjustments have been made for Irish students in the wake of Brexit. 

 Trinity graduate Caoimhe Gordon has been studying at a London university since September, despite having never actually visited the campus due to the pandemic. “We’ve spoken about Brexit several times in class and so far, the general consensus is that it was ushered in without much ado, given the other challenges the UK was facing”, Caoimhe remarked. “However, I feel the long-term effects will be felt for students, particularly in relation to the Erasmus+ program, in which the UK will no longer participate.” 

 While the Irish government has agreed to extend the benefits of its Erasmus+ program to students in Northern Ireland, UK students can no longer partake in the Erasmus+ exchange to mainland Europe. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced the UK’s plans for the replacer “Turing scheme”, a new programme which will offer funding for placements and exchanges commencing in September 2021.

“I can’t imagine this new scheme will offer the same culturally immersive opportunity”

 “I find it quite sad to be honest, as I can’t imagine this new scheme will offer the same culturally immersive opportunity,” Gordon said. “My Erasmus year was truly a highlight of my university experience and I know my classmates I met there from the UK would agree. It’s a casualty for Irish students too, for whom it won’t be possible to study in the UK via Erasmus+.”

Despite the implications of Brexit, Gordon still intends to move to the UK to pursue journalism after she graduates. “Right now, I still think London is a cosmopolitan and exciting city with so much to offer”, she explained. “However, I wonder if this reputation will diminish as it’s going to become so removed from its European neighbours.”

“I definitely don’t regret my choice to study with a UK university, as it offered me the best potential opportunity for my chosen path,” she continued. “However, the settlement scheme presents new challenges for EU citizens. Therefore, they may be tempted by somewhere with less logistics to consider, somewhere that allows them to avoid unnecessary university fees and continue the free movement that the EU happily allows.” 

As long as the Common Travel Area arrangement prevails, and university fees remain the same, Gordon doesn’t think Irish students will be swayed from studying in the UK. “In fact, it might become more of a rite of passage for them,” she mused. 

Killian Madden, financial analyst at a large Irish airline and aviation industry expert, doesn’t predict Brexit will stimulate colossal reform of the travel industry, to any extent. “For the most part consumers won’t even notice it,” he began. “Any problems that arise will stem from the legal side. For example, Ryanair can no longer operate a London to Glasgow flight like they could when Britain were in the EU. As a result, they were forced to set up an English subsidiary called Ryanair UK.” Madden foresees a lot of airlines taking a similar route in order to minimise Brexit’s influence as much as possible.

“In terms of the actual travel experience, it’s kind of a best of both worlds situation for the Irish”

 “In terms of the actual travel experience, it’s kind of a best of both worlds situation for the Irish”, he continued. “Unlike other European citizens, we can travel to both the UK and the EU as freely and safely as before.”

Madden pointed out that UK airport charges are already “some of the most expensive in the world”. He added: “After Brexit these are no longer controlled by the EU, so the UK can essentially charge whatever they want. It’s hard to predict, but I have a feeling that post-Covid, it may become more expensive to fly into the UK. Naturally, this will affect Irish students if connecting via the UK, be it when heading on their J1, going backpacking or studying abroad.” As a result, Madden anticipates a possible increase in connections through the continent and fewer tendencies towards stopovers in London airports. 

Albeit more a culmination of the pandemic than Brexit, Madden warned that students should prepare for a forecasted rise in flight costs. “Prices will rise after the pandemic as the number of airlines and airports decreases. Similar to the current landscape of the US airline industry, supergroup airlines will be formed here in Europe and there will be less routes available, which will drive prices up.” 

 “The days of flying to Spain for a fiver might be coming to an end,” Madden concluded. 

Overall, for Irish students, Brexit’s impact on both travelling and studying abroad is fortunately quite minimal, thanks to the Common Travel Area arrangement. In contrast to the remainder of the EU, Ireland’s students lie in a fortuitous position, with a foot in the door of both Europe and the UK. While behaviour changes are unlikely to arise as a direct result of Brexit, there is certainly scope for a domino effect in terms of both university options and travel. Could it be that the adversities faced by EU citizens will consequently avert Irish students from studying within their neighbouring isle? Will the road to a culturally diverse and less regulated mainland Europe become the one more travelled for students of Ireland? Only time will tell.