Why the end of free movement matters to colleges

By Julian Gravatt on

Updated to take account of the Political Declaration published on Thursday 22 November 2018

The sound and fury about Brexit in the last few weeks could mean that we miss something important on the issue of migration and education.

On Wednesday 14 November, the UK government and EU commission published a 585-page withdrawal agreement and a 7-page political declaration. That was the day when two cabinet ministers resigned. A week later, on Thursday 22 November, the two sides published a longer, 26 page, version of political declaration. Education barely gets a mention in the big withdrawal agreement but it's what the shorter document doesn't say that is important. This is the one which sets out the plans of both sides for the future relationship. And, if all goes to according to the government’s plan - and there'll inevitably be some bumps along the way - the UK will end inward free movement for EU citizens in 2021.

In post-18 education, this could mean a return to the situation where they're liable for international student fees. Back to the position before the Maastricht treaty - an end to 30 years of equal education funding.

Nothing is certain when it comes to Brexit, but we know some things for sure. We know that the government plans a white paper promising a Canada-style immigration system which prioritises skills over nationality. We can also surmise that opposition parties are unlikely to contest controls that make it harder for employers to use migration to cut pay. We also know that it will take the Home Office until 2021 at the earliest to register the 3 million EU nationals under the new settlement scheme. New rules and controls will wait until this is done.

What we found out this week that is new is that the future UK/EU deal has very modest aims when it comes to migration. All that the 7-page draft said is that the two sides will have discussions about temporary mobility for "business purposes in defined areas" and "visa-free travel for short-term visits". The two sides expanded on this a little in the 26 page outline declaration but the aims are still modest. In a few short paragraphs (52 to 54), the outline political declaration says that the UK and EU aim to agree "visa free travel for short-term visits" while considering "conditions for entry and stay for research, training, education and youth exchanges". They will also consider social security co-ordination which supports mobility - perhaps borrowing some of the provisions in the existing freedom of movement directive that extend rights for EU citizens.

These plans could be helpful for future education exchanges, particularly for colleges whose current international activity is often built around student exchanges and short-term study visits. However it is important to understand that there is no sign of plans to discuss or continue wider mobility for education - with the host government picking up the funding tab. The existing rules may stay for a short while, particularly for EU nationals with settled status and those who have already started courses but, by September 2022, it's quite possible everyone else from outside the UK will be unfunded when it comes to post-18 education.

The Prime Minister has made it very clear this week that EU free movement will end after Brexit. What became clearer this week is that the EU isn't publicly pushing against this. EU governments want access to UK fishing waters and protection for valuable trading names. These issues are all included in some detail in the 26 page declaration. Longer-term mobility for education does not. Both sides may yet negotiate this, but it might be sensible for colleges, universities and everyone else to prepare for a new approach to funding, fees and loans - just three recruitment cycles after the current one.