With so many flavours of Brexit currently on the political table, it is often tempting to avoid political engagement at all costs. Long days spent in the library and long nights spent on Cowgate have made many students apathetic and fostered a sense that, at least for now, Brexit is a somehow distant reality. While there have also been some students on campus who have recently been campaigning, especially during the countdown to 29 March, for many Brexit poses no threat. For students from EU countries, however, Brexit has caused an immense level of instability. With so many of our classmates and friends finding the current political climate unwelcoming, it is time we all engaged with events taking place in London and Brussels.
In an attempt to bring the realities of Brexit home to Edinburgh, as it were, The Student has undertaken a survey to illuminate the ways in which Brexit has and is being experienced by EU students at this university and in our city. While the data collected cannot be infinitely used to express the varying and complex ways in which all EU students have experienced recent political events, individual responses demonstrate just some of the frustrations and fears that many of Edinburgh’s students are feeling.
Brexit has undoubtedly caused uncertainty. The University of Edinburgh has attempted to combat this, with 85.4 per cent of those surveyed by The Student saying that they have been contacted directly by the university regarding Brexit. The university has stated on its new page ‘The University and Europe,’ that “Edinburgh is a truly global university, so at this time it’s especially important that we emphasise our ongoing commitment to international diversity and a community in which students and staff continue to feel valued and welcome.” This has been accompanied by an email from the Senior Vice Principal, Charlie Jeffery, who seconded the university’s commitment to multiculturalism and inclusivity.
Some may ask, however, whether the university has done enough to ensure the comfort of its EU students. A third of those surveyed said they did not believe that this contact has been sufficient, with one respondent stating that there had been very little information provided on what would happen if they decided to pursue further studies in the UK after the end of their current degree. Clearly, the university’s actions have left many students in the dark.
However, many respondents felt that the university has been left almost as clueless as the rest of us. 12.8 per cent of respondents said that the contact they received had been entirely sufficient, with a further 51.3 per cent simply saying that it had been “alright.” Several respondents said that the university is doing the best it can in a tricky situation: “It’s not the university‘s fault. They were not able to give concrete statements about our future here, because everything around Brexit has been only uncertainty.”
The university is not alone in its confusion. Despite stereotypes of students as politically disengaged, or at least politically idle, the vast majority of students questioned in our survey (82.9 per cent) have been making an active effort to counter their uncertainty through engagement with Brexit related news. With 87 per cent of those surveyed saying that they have been following news on Brexit through newspapers online and 75.6 saying they were also engaging through social media, it is clear that the media itself has a fair amount of power in our perceptions of Brexit.
Some have accused the rhetoric surrounding Brexit, often perpetuated by media outlets, of spreading xenophobia. When asked whether they believed this to be the case, respondents gave mixed responses. 39 per cent believed that this link to be somewhat existent, with a further 22 per cent believing this to definitely be the case. One student claimed that “media and politicians’ statements entitled citizens to feel free to express their racist opinions.”
Indeed, with the Home Office finding that hate crimes rose by 41 per cent in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, there is an extremely urgent need to assess the ways in which Brexit is discussed and portrayed in the media. One of our respondents noted that while “much of the pro-Brexit rhetoric was careful to avoid overt xenophobia,” that in fact “it’s the underlying driving force for Brexit.” 73.1 per cent of our respondents reported that media representations of Brexit made them feel either a little or very upset. Several took the opportunity to expand on their feelings regarding media coverage of Brexit further, with emotional reactions including “very unhappy, anxious, helpless,” and “frustrated and confused af.” One student even stated that “it would be good entertainment if it wasn’t real.”
Accusations that the recent political climate has been hostile to EU nationals should concern everyone. With this in mind, The Student asked respondents if Brexit has caused them to rethink their plans of living or working in the UK post-Brexit. With 39 per cent saying that it has changed their plans, and a further 29.3 per cent saying that they are now somewhat uncertain of their future, it seems that for many of Edinburgh’s students the way forward is unclear. One respondent commented: “I had planned on settling in the UK forever. Scotland is my home. I have PhD from [the University of Edinburgh], and I’m struggling to get a job here. So much insecurity. People who have to turn each penny twice will have noticed that food has got more expensive. So, yeah. I’m returning to Germany because there’s better career opportunities.”
This respondent was not alone. Another commented: “a few years ago, I imagined that I would try and find a job here after graduating, working and building a life in the UK. Now I am very certain that I will go back home after my studies. I don’t want to live in a country that gives me the feeling of not being wanted or appreciated.” While Brexit may still be in the works, for many of our respondents its impact is already being felt. Distressingly, one student reported that “my boyfriend and I were made to feel very uncomfortable and then openly confronted on a busy train to Inverness by a lady sat opposite because we were speaking German to one another, which is something I never expected to happen in the UK and made me very upset.”
The fact that people at our own university have been made to feel that they are “not wanted or appreciated” requires more than an information page or email from the Vice Principal. Academic, financial and emotional stability are not fun add-ons that only some students are allowed to enjoy, but essential components of university life.
One thing that has become clear from The Student’s survey is that the self-perceived place of EU students in Edinburgh is still being negotiated. One student commented that Edinburgh and the UK more generally “no longer feels as welcoming and I don’t want to live in a country that isn’t open to everyone.” It is worth noting that not all respondents have had such negative experiences (“I am glad the university seems to be very open and supportive of relations with the EU, in fact, the world”), but that almost all respondents have expressed an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty. While for some this is only moderate, for others this has become crippling, it is this that is at the heart of our need to act.
Perhaps, then, those of us who struggle to fully grasp the idea that Brexit may eventually bring about tangible change in this very city should consider those for whom this change is already taking place. At an institution that should foster a sense of community, it is upsetting to think that one respondent reported having “never felt so unwanted and rejected as I felt on the morning of Brexit. Waking up to that news devastated me.”