Will UK student visas have to change post-Brexit?

“When change finally does occur, what form is the new landscape for EU students likely to take?”

The recognition of education as an economic purpose by the founding fathers of the European Economic Community led to freedom of movement for students of EU and later EEA states plus Switzerland.

This has changed the face of higher education across the Continent, facilitating cross-fertilisation of ideas and consequent innovation across a mobile student and academic population. It is undoubtedly a shining achievement of post-WW2 European politics, and the UK’s great universities have been at the heart of many major developments in learning.


So, what impact on higher education will the UK’s decision to quit the European Union have post-Brexit Day on 29 March 2019?  In readiness for this apparently fundamental change to relations between these islands and the European mainland, the British government has sought to put in place measures to ensure, as far as it can, a smooth and orderly transition.  Are these measures sufficient to prevent a major breakdown in student movements between Europe and the newly-isolated UK?

Immigration status for EU nationals

It is important to understand that the ending of free movement for economic purposes, including study, will probably not come as quickly as March 2019.  The UK government had indicated that it would implement transitional arrangements unilaterally even in the event of a no-deal Brexit, so as to ensure that all EU citizens who relocate here before 31 December 2020 would be eligible for pre-settled and (after 5 years’ qualifying residence) settled status.

However, in a paper published on 6 December 2018, the UK’s Department for Exiting the EU confirms that no-deal means no transition, so protections would exist only for EU citizens present in the UK before Brexit Day on 29 March 2019. The rights of these citizens are, once again, being used as a bargaining chip – this time not in negotiations with the European Commission, but in the UK government’s efforts to persuade a sceptical electorate and parliament to accept the Withdrawal Agreement.

So long as there is a Deal, an EEA student beginning a course in autumn 2020 will do so secure in the knowledge that they will continue to benefit from what is effectively freedom of movement, through to settled or permanent resident status if they choose.

“When change finally does occur, what form is the new landscape for EU students likely to take? “

As an example, someone who begins a masters degree at a UK university in October 2020, completes their course in June 2021, and then seeks employment here, will retain continuity of residence under the transitional arrangements.  Their residence will not be broken by, for example, time off to start a family.  It will be broken by prolonged absence from the UK.  If that same student completes their master then goes on to do a PhD also at a British university, they must ensure they do not spend more than 6 months at any one time abroad, for example doing field research.  If they do, they might find themselves having to apply for re-entry under domestic immigration rules which will apply to post-1 January 2021 arrivals from EEA states.

When change finally does occur, what form is the new landscape for EU students likely to take? The UK’s Nations are expected to lobby to keep things as they are, in order to attract international talent and thereby maintain the standing of the UK’s universities in international eyes.  However, immigration policy is a responsibility of central, not devolved, government, so regional variations are unlikely to be sanctioned.

The worst-case scenario would be alignment with existing non-EU rules, which involve sponsorship by licensed higher education institutions under Tier 4 of the Points-Based System.  Such students would pay international fees, currently up to around £18,000 per year for some courses, and be required to hold sufficient maintenance funds, currently £9,135 if studying outside London, £11,385 if studying in the capital.

Which is more likely?  The government’s stated view is that EU citizens will not receive preferential treatment, so it is wise to fear the worst, with potentially disastrous consequences for the mobility of students and academics between the UK and EU.

About the author: This article was written by Gary McIndoe, immigration solicitor at Latitude Law. An expert in the field of immigration and asylum, he is an AILA International Associate and has contributed the immigration chapter to ‘Doing Business After Brexit’.