It will be difficult to get up and face the world on June 23rd. This is not because we gymnázium teachers have our classification meeting that day. It is because it will be the fifth anniversary of what I think is the stupidest, most damaging decision a democratic country has taken in my lifetime; the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, in other words Brexit.
I might be bitter because my side lost, but I believe that the campaign for Brexit was financed by foreign criminals and oligarchs, fronted by charlatans (hello Boris Johnson) and based on a toxic mix of racism and lies: ’80 million Turks could cross our borders.’ ‘We send £350 million per week to the EU.’ It was primitive nonsense, but sadly it worked. 52% of British people voted for Brexit.
The process of leaving the EU completely was long and complicated. It took until December 31st 2020, but its effects are becoming clearer now. British exporters to the EU are facing increased bureaucracy. Scotland is talking again about independence, which would break up the UK. There are problems in Northern Ireland, as we EU remain supporters knew there would be.
Brexit has caused stress for citizens too; for the estimated 3.5 million EU citizens living in the UK and the 1.5 million Brits in the EU (though both numbers are probably higher). For a long-term resident of Slovakia like me, it did not cause too much trouble. It was sad to change my card that had the words ‘občan EU’ to one that says ‘osoba s dlhodobým pobytom EU’, but there are people with far bigger worries.
More relevant is what Brexit means for our students. One of the principles of the EU is that students from one country can go and study in another, under the same conditions as students from the host country. As English-speakers, UK universities used to be quite an attractive proposition for our students. The application process is simple enough, Maturita was accepted as an equivalent qualification to the ones British school-leavers complete, and the financial demands were manageable.
This is not to say that we would ever wish for all or most of our students to go and study in Britain. In fact, Slovakia really needs more of its bright young people to stay here and work for this country’s future. But for those who wanted to study something specific, for which offers at Czech and Slovak universities were limited, it was always a pleasure to be able to suggest Britain as a viable alternative and to give whatever help students needed with the application.
With the end of the Brexit transition period, the final break with the EU has come. Slovak students can still apply to study in the UK, but they will now be subject to ‘international student fees’, which are expensive and have to be paid up front. Our experience so far is that far fewer of our school leavers will even consider making an application.
One 5th year student wrote a very interesting essay this year. She had attended a presentation on UK universities at the start of her 4th grade, and became very keen on the prospect of making an application. A few months later, the UK announced that EU students would no longer enjoy the same financial conditions as before. Our student felt forced to change her focus. Then she found courses for her chosen subject in the Czech Republic that she realised were as attractive as the British ones that had caught her eye at the presentation. So she put her energies into applying for some of those, and her motivation actually increased.
So one moral of this for students might be that when one door closes, another door opens. But for Britain, I think the moral is that the country is losing out. Our students have the potential to make the best of wherever they go to study, whether that is London, Prague, Bratislava or Edinburgh. But British universities used to be the vibrant, interesting, attractive places they were precisely because of their internationalism. The ease of bringing in lecturers from the EU, or the fact that, to use my niece as an example, a British student could be sharing a house with students from Finland and the Czech Republic were important factors in creating this atmosphere.
Britain says Brexit does not mean it is ‘closing its doors’. But it is making it more difficult for young people from neighbouring countries to go and study there. Very best wishes to those of our students who would still like to try, but I will not stop wishing that June 23rd 2016 had never happened.