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So, Brexit means Brexit: but what does that mean for students?

Wednesday 18-01-2017 - 09:29

Today, after months of government silence and media speculation, the Prime Minister announced her priorities for the Brexit negotiations.

After months of uncertainty, which have rocked UK politics since the public’s decision to leave the European Union last June, the government has today outlined publicly its stated priorities for the years of negotiation and compromise that lie ahead of us.

Theresa May has now told us her 12 priorities – and the 4 principles that underlie them – so we are beginning to get a clearer sense of what Brexit will really mean. But what, if anything, have we learnt about what it will mean for students?

The government’s priorities

  1. Provide certainty about the process of leaving the EU
  2. Control of our own laws
  3. Strengthen the Union between the four nations of the United Kingdom
  4. Maintain the Common Travel Area with Ireland
  5. Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe
  6. Rights for EU nationals in Britain and British nationals in the EU
  7. Protect workers' rights
  8. Free trade with European markets through a free trade agreement
  9. New trade agreements with other countries
  10. The best place for science and innovation
  11. Co-operation in the fight against crime and terrorism
  12. A smooth, orderly Brexit

These, Theresa May has said, are underpinned by four principles of ensuring: certainty and clarity; a stronger Britain; a fairer Britain; and, a global Britain.

Reading between the lines

These priorities, taken together, set out what amounts to a ‘hard’ Brexit approach to leaving the EU – with explicit statements from the Prime Minister for the first time that the UK will look to leave the EU’s single market (and seek a new unique free trade agreement) and a clear message that the UK will not accept any deal that requires Britain to fall under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice or free movement.

However, they also set out an attempt to calm fears about a ‘cliff-edge’ when the two years that Britain gets to negotiate its exit from the EU is up. The ‘smooth, orderly Brexit’ indicates the Prime Minister’s desire for a ‘transitional period’, where certain aspects of Brexit are ‘phased in’. Similarly, the protection of workers’ rights strengthening of the union and providing certainty all form part of a commitment given in Theresa May’s speech that existing EU law will be ‘translated’ into British law in time for Brexit, and then amended piecemeal by the UK parliament afterwards.

They attempt to establish the UK as a ‘global trading nation’ – with ambitions for free trade agreements with countries all over the world, as well as a unique free trade deal with the EU – but how achievable such an agreement will be in practice remains to be seen…

The impact on students

The Prime Minister’s speech said little about the impact of Brexit on different groups – not least students or young people more generally. But there is much within what Theresa May said that will affect and concern students.

She highlights rights for EU nationals living in the UK as a priority but, in her speech, she has quite clearly made this contingent on the rights of UK nationals abroad. There are over 125,500 students from the EU in the UK – and this approach turns them into bargaining chips. Non-UK students in the UK are already facing uncertainty and prejudice, especially since the Referendum result six months ago, and they deserve better than to be used as a negotiating tactic.

On top of this, the concerning rhetoric about immigration continues. It is clear that Theresa May intends to use Brexit as an opportunity to cut immigration figures by creating a more restrictive system. International students – as long as they are counted within net migration statistics – will therefore be targeted by the same hostile policies. The Government cannot pretend that it welcomes international students to the UK whilst its policies are so actively deterring them from coming to study here.

May was also very clear about her wish to see the UK continuing its role in the fight against terrorism across Europe, which has so far focussed on the sharing of intelligence and strategies – not least through initiatives like the Prevent Duty. Students have campaigned for years against Home Office practices and policies that are fundamentally counter-productive, alienating and regressive, and NUS has policy to encourage non-compliance with Prevent. Moving forward in the negotiations, it will be important that students’ concerns about the rhetoric and the impact surrounding such policies are not ignored and that fears for the UK’s international security are not used to further target students because of their beliefs, ethnicity or values.

The Prime Minister, however, did confirm that Parliament will get a vote on any final deal that’s reached with the EU. As negotiations continue it is therefore vital that students talk to and meet with their MPs to get their voices heard.

Theresa May might call her vision for Brexit one of a ‘global Britain’, but this is meaningless if we do nothing to put values of tolerance, collaboration and community into practice. That’s why we’ll soon be launching a campaign for a liberated education system – where all students across our society can access a transformative, inclusive education.

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