“On the day Brexit was announced, I was surrounded by students and colleagues who were in tears. The mood was sadness, shock, disbelief, it was really heartbreaking to see because we work together, learn from each other and develop knowledge together within institutions that make this country even better.”
While many people struggled to accept the result of the EU referendum last June, Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon says it was particularly painful for international staff and students at British universities.
The professor of enterprise and engineering education at the University of Sheffield says there is deep concern about where Brexit negotiations will lead for those working and studying in higher education who hail from overseas, particularly after Home Secretary Amber Rudd promised “tougher rules” for international students.
With Article 50 due to be triggered this month to begin the Brexit process, thousands of EU university staff and students face an uncertain future.
The Government has said EU students starting their courses this autumn will continue to be eligible for student loans and home fee status for the duration of their courses, but new guidance is anticipated for those due to start at a British university from the 2018/19 academic year.
Meanwhile, EU staff working in Britain are yet to be guaranteed the right to stay in the UK after Brexit, with Theresa May insisting she will not do so until the other 27 member states make a similar pledge on the rights of UK nationals living in their countries.
Now Yorkshire’s universities are demanding that guarantees on their future ability to work and study are given by the Government, while also asking for international student numbers to be taken out of immigration statistics as the Government looks to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” of new arrivals.
Research from Oxford Economics published this week by Universities UK said that in Yorkshire and the Humber, the region’s universities attracted 32,760 overseas students in 2014/15, who spent a combined £429m in the local economy. The research said spending by international students supported 3,594 full-time jobs in the region.
The findings come as a separate report warns potential new restrictions on overseas students could end up draining billions from the British economy.
Professor Rodriguez-Falcon is originally from Mexico but has worked at the University of Sheffield for 15 years after previously studying there and now has British citizenship.
“Sheffield is very, very different to Mexico. I loved it and that is why I’m still here. I love the warmth of the British people and how welcoming they are.
“Mexicans are very patriotic. I came to the UK 19 years ago thinking I will go for one to two years and go back to Mexico.
“I never imagined I would fall in a love with a country the way I have with Britain. I consider myself to be part of the community.”
She says she still loves living in Yorkshire but has been shaken by the referendum result and the focus of immigration during the campaign.
“When I saw the final result, I felt so sad. I never felt like people didn’t want me here before. It was about the EU but to some extent it feels like it was about anyone who is not from here. It is heartbreaking.”
Professor Rodriguez-Falcon teaches a class of around 350 students on Mondays and says there are 36 different countries represented among the students. In her department, she says of the 65 members of staff, half are from other countries, with one in three European.
“We are deeply proud of our international community and gain a lot from our diversity. We have to ensure that we protect that for the benefit of our society here in the UK and the benefit of the wider world.”
Her opinions are shared by Professor Sir Keith Burnett, the vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, which has more than 6,700 international students from outside the EU. It also employs 752 workers from the EU and a further 936 international staff from outside the EU.
Sir Keith says international staff and students make an “immeasurable” contribution both to the institution and the wider city.
“We urgently need the government to end any link between international students and the highly-politicised debate around immigration. International students have been vital to the financial stability of UK universities at a time of real terms reductions in the public funding of both teaching and research.
“At a time when so much inward investment is focused on London and the south, international students support businesses and opportunity across the whole of the UK. We simply cannot afford to lose them.”
Professor Tim Thornton, vice-chancellor of the University of Huddersfield, says his institution has more than 100 members of staff who are from the EU and takes in around 200 to 300 EU students each year.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd suggested in October that the consultation on the immigration system for international students would be based on “tougher rules for students on lower quality courses” and Professor Thornton says it is yet to become apparent how a cap on numbers would work in practice.
“There is an unfortunate misconception that by taking these students out of the system, there will be a benefit to UK students. Quite the opposite is the case. It is vital for the viability of courses from which UK students benefit that we recruit international students.
“They support courses through the fees they pay, they add to the diversity of courses and help maintain courses that would otherwise not have a viable number on them to run.”
The University of York has also expressed concern about potential changes to international student numbers. A spokesman said: “We want to be able to continue recruiting the best academics and students from around the EU and world without bureaucratic visa burdens.”
A recent report by the Higher Education Policy Institute warned that “billions of pounds that would be at risk from any big cut in the number of international visas for students”.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “Were the Home Office to conduct yet another crackdown on international students, then the UK could lose out on £2 billion a year just when we need to show we are open for business like never before. Removing international students from the net migration target would be an easy, cost-less and swift way to signal a change in direction.”
‘No plans for cap’, says Government
The Government insists it has “no plans” to cap international student numbers.
A spokesman said: “EU and international students, staff and researchers make an important contribution to our higher education sector and we want that to continue.
“The UK has a long established system that supports and attracts global talent. We will continue to attract the best and brightest to work or study in Britain – but that process must be managed properly so that our immigration system serves the national interest.
“The UK remains one of the most popular destinations for students globally and we want this to continue, which is why there are no plans to cap the number of international students who can come to study.”