Everyone will remember what they did on the 23rd of June of 2016 as one would remember, for example, where they were when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. One particular event, in one particular day, that will leave its mark on the pages of history and, more importantly, in the memories of those who lived to see their world change over night. As I write these words something in my head keeps saying I should erase them and write something positive instead (some of you will now exclaim: ‘you are over-reacting!’), but I will leave them here because, I think, the first thing that one should do in the aftermath of Britain’s EU Referendum result is acknowledge the immense impact that this has had (and still does) on so many people. The ramifications are endless, and I cannot speak on behalf of all the people who were affected in one way or another by what has come to be known as the ‘Brexit’, but I can provide you with an insight into what this might mean for an international student such as myself. Along the way, I will also give you a glimpse into how UKCISA is responding to the situation.
Starting from the beginning, a week before the referendum, I was sitting in UKCISA’s office, nervously waiting for my first interview as a recent graduate. Outside the sun was blazing hot, but having arrived from chilly Aberdeen just a week or two before, it felt, funnily enough, a bit like a tropical holiday, and it reminded me of the hot summers back home in Romania. Needless to say, I was optimistic to start my new life in London, and was looking forward to work as an intern before going back to university once the summer was over. The future looked as bright as the sun and soon after the interview I got the call saying that I was hired. Coincidentally, I went back to the office for a follow-up exactly on the 23rd of June. On my way there I could not help noticing people on the street were smiling and sharing ‘Remain’ leaflets. Hey, even I was smiling when UKCISA’s Dominic Scott, Chief Executive asked me, with a worried look on his face, how did I think the vote would go: ‘I think it will be close’, I said, optimistic that the result will be what we hoped for.
Fast-forward a week, that smile slowly faded. The atmosphere on the streets changed to one of mourning, as someone or something had died, perhaps people’s optimism. All of a sudden my plans seemed not so sure anymore, and it was easy to see how current and prospective international students might feel the same.
Another week passed and I was in Sheffield for the annual UKCISA conference where the Home Office had agreed long ago to hold a plenary. The timing could not have been more perfect. Everyone was hoping for some answers regarding the event from the previous week. While the delegates kept asking challenging questions, my own kept racing through my head: Will I be able to continue with the job? How about the postgraduate course that I am due to start next semester? Will my fees change? Will I need a visa? How about medical care? And the list went on and on. All the international students, no doubt, were asking themselves the same questions and then some. However, even if no one knew anything for sure, the delegates unanimously agreed that students’ concerns needed to be addressed and reassurance had to be provided.
In this respect, I felt, UKCISA’s role was then as it is now, more important than ever. International students and advisory bodies look at UKCISA for answers and I was in the right place, at the right time as I could raise those questions where I knew they would be heard. So I did: first at the general UKCISA meeting that followed the referendum, and then in the following meetings I had with an Advice and Training Officer (ATO) at UKCISA.
The first thing that we all agreed on is that international students’ priorities had, obviously, changed and that this needed to be addressed first.
Hence, after some deliberation, the ATO set out to reconfigure the Information & advice section on UKCISA’s website, and a special headline called EEA & Swiss students was completely updated with old and new information, in the order that we thought was more urgent and relevant.
The Post EU referendum section came first, where information about the referendum’s result and up-to-date changes, alongside official statements and useful links to other relevant information were added.
Next, we thought, after wanting to know what changes and what does not, your first thought as an international student would be if you can still live here (I know mine was!), or if and how you can enter the UK and live there when your course will start. Now that the UK was presumably leaving the European Union, there was a bit of confusion as to whether EU students could come or stay in the UK, and whether they would need any documents in order to prove those rights. Should I apply for something which confirmed my right to be here? Not sure, but I can learn about my options there.
Moreover, we thought it was necessary to keep the information about what countries are part of the EEA, as this includes both members and non-members of the EU. And what about dual citizens? Luckily, the website clarifies all these things in the Are you an EEA national? section. After that, the Rights to enter and remain in the UK section was next on the list where up- to-date information from the Home Office on the documents needed to enter the UK, and the basic residence rights can be found. Then the Staying in the UK as a student section lays out all the criteria that need to be met if exercising a right to reside as a student, and helpfully highlights the need to get comprehensive sickness insurance in order to prove you have the right to reside in the UK as a student.
Nevertheless, many international students (including myself) need to work in order to be able to support themselves during the studies, and I made sure to highlight the importance of having up-to-date news on this aspect. The simply titled section Working reminds us that, as the UK is still a member of the EU for the time being, nothing changes in our rights to work during or after our studies. As with every section, any changes will be immediately updated to the pages.
My worries regarding the access to medical treatment were also addressed in the Medical treatment section, which highlights the importance of the EHIC (European Health Insurance Card), a card that allows EEA nationals to get the same medical treatment which is free for the residents of the country they are visiting (in this case the UK), without any charge. As mentioned above, the EHIC is also crucial to hold in case you are thinking to apply for the certificate of permanent residence, in which case you will need to prove that you have been continuously living in the UK for 5 years. One of the requirements of this directive is to have, at all times, any kind of comprehensive sickness insurance in which case the EHIC may be your friend.
But what happens after I finish my studies and I do not qualify for a certificate of permanent residence? The Remaining in the UK section provides all the details on what is needed and how to apply for a certificate of permanent residence in case you need one, but it also reminds us that we can exercise our right to reside in the UK after having completed our studies while the UK is still in the European Union, without needing a certificate, if we fall in any of the following categories: self-sufficient, self-employed, worker, student or the relevant family member of someone who has the right to reside. In addition, more information on the rights of family members of EEA nationals can be found in the Family members of EEA nationals section.
As an international student, these were my main concerns and they have all been addressed and the answers made public for all international students to benefit from. Still, this is just one of the ways in which UKCISA has made sure international students would receive all the support they need in the aftermath of the EU Referendum as it continues to work tirelessly to make sure we get all the support and information needed before and during our stay in the UK. However, I am sure some of you might have other pressing priorities and concerns that need addressing, therefore do let us know what other things you think we should add in that section.
Finally, I think we remember days like the 23rd of June of 2016, or November 9, 1989 because our world changed all of a sudden, a wall was built and a wall has fallen, but sometimes we forget that the world can and does change just as dramatically over time. The continuous work and perseverance of the people who believe in building bridges and not walls can be seen in retrospective, and the results are astounding. Even though the general levels of optimism have dropped a little since the beginning of this summer, I still believe that the UK is a great place to live and study mainly because of the work of such people who, day after day, make sure international students are welcome in the UK, that #LondonisOpen and that #WeAreInternational. Now, again, brick by brick, we will all re-build those bridges higher than the walls.
Melisa Costinea, originally from Transylvania, Romania, is studying PGDip Social Research Methods at University College London, and has previously studied MA Film and Visual Culture - Sociology at University of Aberdeen.