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Article 50: our response today will shape the education of tomorrow

Wednesday 05-04-2017 - 13:40

The triggering of Article 50 by the government and the official start of negotiations over Britain's exit from the EU will throw up real anxieties for many students.

These feelings will be prompted by both the things we know and those we don't.

What we do know is that since the referendum, hate crime in the streets and xenophobia in the political sphere have risen.

The government and the media are calling for tighter border controls, more deportations, and greater scrutiny of migrants including in schools, colleges and universities. All indicators point to the fact that, without serious resistance from society, these issues are set to get worse.

What we do not know is exac­­tly how the Brexit negotiations are going to impact on education. What will happen to international students from the EU? How will it impact programs like Erasmus or years abroad? What will happen to the status of EU staff in our institutions? And how will it affect the funding agreements with EU bodies, especially within the nations? All these questions generate insecurity in the sector as well as within our movement.

My response to those concerns has been two-fold: build campaigns around the direct issues facing us now, as well as those we are not yet fully able to foresee. I am ensuring our union is unequivocal in our support of students and workers’ right to remain, and join with other organisations fighting along those lines. I have made this crystal clear in our written evidence to the Education Select Committee on the “Impact of Exiting the European Union on Higher Education”.

We are fighting to shape the terms on which Brexit takes place. This comes with a certain difficulty, because of the lack of clarity coming from Westminster. Much of what we discuss in this area, therefore, remains effectively in the realm of speculation.

For me, these are the other main issues of concern:

Firstly, the question of funding of Higher Education, and the ways in which funding that is linked to the European Union or European partnerships is affected by Brexit. We expect this question to be particularly sharp in the nations, where European funds play - in general - a more important role. It seems that in this area there is the possibility of a broad front across the sector with a unified position over the safeguarding of existing agreements.

Secondly, the possibly changing relation to EU staff/students. The refusal of the Tories to commit to maintaining the status of European workers in the context of Brexit negotiations is a clear warning for the months and years ahead. Our campaigns are vital, and this leads to the wider question of how international students are treated. I have touched already on how the post-Brexit intensification of attacks on immigration affects international students. This will also be particularly sharply posed in Northern Ireland where the threat of a hard border between the North and the South is a real possibility.

Thirdly, within the context of Brexit, the UK is going to need to develop new and credible approaches to other countries. Programs such as Erasmus have played a key role in shaping European and British students’ studies and their view of the world. The graduates of the future will play a vital role in the UK, whether they are UK students taking the opportunity to study abroad or international students contributing to a diverse student experience in the UK – both are needed Currently, the government’s stance is undermining the UK education sector by giving no reassurances on its willingness to maintain student mobility within Europe and is actively deterring students from the rest of the world. 

We have made tackling the rapid intensification of hate crime and offering practical solidarity to international students a key priority.

Only a few weeks ago, the government suffered an important defeat in the House of Lords, over the question of adding international students to the net migration figures - a position that the NUS has long campaigned against. This decision on international students comes amidst a growing movement in solidarity with migrants, which the NUS has played a key role in.

In the last year, we have mobilised against the government's assaults on migrants. For example, we have taken the government to court over the stripping of more than 50,000 international students' visas on bogus grounds. We have taken every opportunity to march with other unions and campaign groups in solidarity with migrants and also organised walk-outs, both last November and this February. These actions aimed to highlight the centrality of migrants in society. All the while, we coordinated events in parliament to bring the message of international students and or movement to MPs and Lords.

This recent victory is limited in scope and much remains yet to be done. The government is still targeting migrants across the UK and - too often - universities are still treating international students as second class, cash cows.

To defeat the government on these questions, it is undeniable that we will need much larger, better organised, and more sustained campaigns. But in order to get there we need to go from struggle to struggle, with an eye to involve as many people as possible.

In this context, the vote on international students is so important because it shows that despite the vitriol politicians and media outlets pour out on the question of migration, especially in post-Brexit Britain, it remains possible for us to shape these debates effectively and that lesson is a crucial one for our work going forward. Our Hate Crime Summit has laid a strong framework for us to move forward in providing specific guidelines for Students' Unions and Associations to take action as well as developing UK-wide responses.

I know well the daily weight of insecurity, uncertainty, and fear that comes with migration and facing an unwelcoming state. The worst we can do in such a situation is to allow the most vulnerable to be isolated and to accept the idea that this process is now out of our hands, that it will be decided entirely in closed door negotiations.

It is our collective task as a movement to fight for better education, to fight for students, for migrants, and for all those who are faced with adverse circumstances. The way we rise to these challenges will shape the future of our sector and our society for years to come.

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