The continued distinction of EU and non-EU students in a post-Brexit UK

Written by Jenna Mittelmeier
(Senior Lecturer in International Education, University of Manchester)

While reading a journal article published this year, I was struck by an author’s definition of international students in the UK as “those domiciled from non-EU countries”. A recent reviewer comment on our own work also questioned why we had chosen not to include distinction between EU and non-EU students in our writing about international students. At recent internal meetings at my institution, I’ve noticed the phrase “non-EU students” still being used regularly in discussion. At a national level, the EU / non-EU divide is also reflected through recruitment data and enrolment data about international students in the UK.

This distinction derives from the period in which the UK was still a member of the European Union, whereby EU students paid home student fees and did not require a student visa under EU rights to free travel among member countries. Yet, in a post-Brexit environment, this technical distinction now loses its meaning; EU students now pay the international student fees and must apply for a UK visa for long-term study programmes. Their status in the UK is now equal to the stipulations placed on student migrants from other world regions and there is no technical reason for why a continued binary between student groups should exist. This begs the question: why does the continued distinction between EU and non-EU students remain?

What was once a practical and administrative distinction, now takes on a problematic social othering in a post-Brexit environment. The continued binary is telling, as it demonstrates collective avoidance with conflating these two groups of students, seen as fundamentally unalike despite their shared migrant status. The implicit discourse is a confirmation of who and what a ‘migrant’ is seen to be, particularly through lenses of racialisation, xenophobia, and problematic conceptualisations of ‘difference’. A national imaginary emerges which continues to categorise students, despite their equal legal status, as those ‘more like us’ and ‘less like us’. I’ve seen this play out in my own experience as a white American in the UK, where I consistently have encountered surprise from British citizens that I might even need a visa in the UK or be categorised as an ‘immigrant’, a sense of shock not afforded to my peers of colour or those from what we might deem as the ‘Global South’. Such dismay is telling and plays into the framing of European students as categorically different from their non-European peers.

“The continued binary is telling, as it demonstrates collective avoidance with conflating these two groups of students, seen as fundamentally unalike despite their shared migrant status.”

As new rules for EU migrants emerged post-Brexit, many of us non-EU migrants saw with dismay the outraged arguments against a ‘two-tiered society’ in which EU citizens had inferior rights to UK citizens. There was, in our mind, limited recognition for the ways that the hostile environment had already created a two-tier system that was actively destroying the lives of the most marginalised migrants in the UK. The outrage on behalf of EU migrants felt misplaced, with surprise that others could not see that the problem was that the hostile environment existed at all, not that EU citizens were suddenly caught up in it. Applying this to students, the continued binary serves as a representative ‘two tier society’ within higher education institutions, whereby EU migrant students are assumed to be distinctive or special. Yet, the language used is important, as argued by Sarah Kunz, as it creates “a normative ordering of movement and bound up with historical racisms.”

The continued adherence to distinctions which no longer hold legal weight contribute to the ongoing and problematic dehumanisation of migrants in the UK by refusing to recognise students and their circumstances as fundamentally the same. EU students are migrants and their only distinction is the additional social privileges they are often offered in British society by way of whiteness.

In terms of research and practice, there is a need for the scholarly community in the UK to critically interrogate the continued use of this distinction, questioning why it may be included and what purpose it serves in our work. Where there may be practical, legal, historical distinctions necessary, these should be clearly described, defined, and rationalised. However, I would caution the continued use of these analytical categories, as they problematically shape and frame how experiences on higher education campuses are evaluated and create unnecessary distinctions between students who share much in common.

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