Thousands of UK students hoping to spend the year abroad are caught in limbo after facing major disruption to their travel plans due to post-Brexit red tape and costs, in respect of which universities say they received inadequate guidance from the government.
Coordinators of academic years abroad who spoke to the Guardian said there had been limited information from the Foreign Office ahead of Brexit on the onerous requirements that the shift in their status would incur in EU countries.
Current advice differs according to the consulate and often conflicts with information from local embassies, with the result that many students have had to cancel or postpone placements, the academics said.
“I don’t think anybody was fully aware of the extent of the entanglement of the UK with the EU. Like any sector – the same goes for fishing, transport and logistics – the university sector is grappling with the complexities of the situation that weren’t known until it happened,” said Claire Gorrara, dean of research and innovation at Cardiff University and chair of the University Council of Modern Languages.
As of 1 January 2021, students arriving in EU countries must submit large amounts of paperwork to obtain visas for their stay, with requirements differing by country. Students must also demonstrate that they can afford their stay in some countries, including proof of more than €6,000 (£5,194) in their bank account in Austria, Italy and Portugal, or of an income of €700-€800 a month in Germany, Denmark and Sweden.
Nigel Harkness, a pro-vice-chancellor and French professor at Newcastle University, said academics and students were unable to prepare for these changes before 1 January. “Most EU countries weren’t in a position to confirm what their own arrangements were because we hadn’t confirmed them on our side, so this has created extra bureaucracy, and it’s been frustrating. We’ve all been developing policy and processes on the hoof.”
Despite the new rules coming into force nearly two months ago, academics said many students were still stuck in the UK awaiting further instructions or attempting to decipher conflicting information. Some students who remained in EU countries over Christmas to avoid Brexit complications have been told they must return to the UK to apply for their visas.
“The UK government guidance remains insufficient – full of unhelpful ‘you may need’ phrases and links to other, EU government sites that often contradict that guidance. It’s all proving very confusing, stressful and expensive for students who until recently had freedom of movement,” said Julia Waters, a professor of French and the year abroad coordinator at the University of Reading.
The year abroad is a mandatory part of modern languages degrees for about 7,000 students in the UK and is considered essential to improve their language fluency and cultural awareness. Lots of students had been planning to head out at the beginning of 2021, while those studying two or more languages typically divide the year into placements in different countries.
The Brexit disruption follows months of uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Students have complained of inconsistent approaches across universities – some have prevented students from travelling all year, while others cancelled the first semester, in some cases at the last minute. This has been further complicated by some EU countries introducing travel bans on non-EU residents, which now apply to UK citizens.
Caitlin Hodgson and Yasmin Payne, students at the University of Reading, employed a Spanish lawyer to help with paperwork after Spain closed its borders to the UK due to coronavirus. “We tried to start the application for residency on our own, which proved futile, firstly as you require a representative, and secondly as the majority of the steps must be done in person in Spain. As we couldn’t get to Spain without a residency, we found ourselves going in circles,” said Hodgson.
Esme Cawley, a third-year French and Hispanic student at the University of Sheffield, said she had spent hundreds of pounds on healthcare plans that were not mandatory for other students travelling to Spain. “Navigating a year abroad post-Brexit has been a total administrative and financial nightmare. Different consulates have different requirements.”
The Foreign Office said visa and entry requirements for UK nationals including students were set by individual EU member states and that it was working with universities to address challenges.
‘None of this is worth it … There’s so much uncertainty’
“I held out on my year abroad until January, and had to change my trip to Belgium. A couple of weeks after changing, I got emails from the university asking about applying for visas, and I looked at how expensive it would be post-Brexit and I thought, ‘None of this is worth it.’ I know someone who had to pay up to a grand in visa fees to go to Belgium. There’s so much uncertainty. We had a pre-departure meeting before we went and the university explained situations that could potentially arise, but said that they hadn’t been given the guidance to advise. I thought I would take a leave of absence, but in September visa charges will be a big thing I have to consider because I come from a low-income family. You also need to be able to prove you can afford to be there and I will never at any point have £5,000 just sitting in my account.”
Rob Pearce, studying Dutch, French and Spanish at the University of Sheffield
‘For so many people, going on a year abroad is unfeasible at the moment’
“I had to come out before the Brexit deadline on 1 January to avoid getting a visa because they’re really expensive and a long process, and I wanted to go sooner rather than later. I was in a fortunate position to be able to take a risk, so I came out to Toulouse without a job. Trying to explain I’m not here illegally to prospective employers because I don’t have a visa has been tricky, but I have a job now. It was really stressful and a shame having to miss new year with my family, but I think it was worth it and I know I’m lucky to be here. For so many people going on a year abroad is unfeasible at the moment, having to get visas and go through all the bureaucracy.”
Antonia Kessell, studying French and philosophy at the University of Edinburgh