By Anna Noble
Over the past 18 months, Covid-19 has succeeded in grounding international travel to an almost standstill. For many years abroad students this meant either a ‘virtual’ exchange experience or placements being cancelled altogether. Even the lucky few that have managed to travel to their placements have often found their experiences marred by the alienness of the pandemic.
Yet, for those studying in Europe there was and remains another dimension facilitating uncertainty, anxiety, and often chaos upon the year abroad experience – Brexit. The duality amounting to somewhat of a double-edged sword. I can speak from my own experiences, having spent much the last year undertaking a year abroad in the Netherlands, when saying that the combination of Covid-19 and Brexit was like navigating a never-ending obstacle course. In fact, a fitting allegory would be to compare the bureaucracy related to both Covid-19 and Brexit with navigating the ‘sucker punch’ wall featured in Total Wipeout.
Nevertheless, I was one of the lucky ones – I actually got a year abroad experience – to meet new people, to explore a new country, many placements were cancelled before they were due to begin. Others who initially made it to their placements were then prevented from getting back due to the emergence of the Delta variant in the UK and the consequences of the UK’s official withdrawal from the EU on 31st of December. Others were denied entry to the countries of the placements at borders. Notably, a Durham student was detained at the Spanish border for three days, having attempted to enter the country for their placement, they required assistance from the British Embassy in order to be repatriated.
The emergence of vaccines has remedied some of the most pertinent obstacles to international travel, with only seven countries remaining on the UK’s Red list and UK travellers are no longer banned from countries in the EU, the US, and Canada. Certain restrictions remain, entry to countries such as Russia and China for placements is almost impossible due to their requirements for specific vaccinations not approved in the UK.
However, with the impact of coronavirus on year abroad placements being significantly less than last year and Brexit-related obstacles remaining a significant concern, is there a risk that year abroad students will shun European placements?
Many students have found that a backlog in visa applications for countries such as Spain has resulted in significant delays threatening their potential to make their placements on time. The situation relating to Spain was so bad, that the UK Foreign Office contacted their Spanish counterparts to attempt to set up a fast-track system – a request that has so far been rejected by Spanish Authorities. Many students have also faced costly bills for visa’s, with The Guardian reporting that some students have been forced to pay more than £700 in attempts to gain visas. Universities appear at a loss of how to help students navigate the complexity now associated with undertaking an exchange placement in Europe. High costs, delays, and uncertainty now appear inevitable. In light of such, it is easy to see why students may be deterred from applying to study in Europe.
With the relationship between the UK and EU being as precarious as it is currently and the visa situation still new and uncertain territory despite recent eases in travel restrictions related to the pandemic, it is now arguably easier to complete a year abroad in a different continent. A report from The Guardian found that many students have switched continents in order to avoid the post-Brexit bureaucratic challenges. After all, universities are well placed to advise upon visas for countries outside of the EU, as this is established practice with longstanding agreements, furthermore, these embassies are less likely to be overloaded.
In addition to this, the Turing Scheme which is set to replace Erasmus+ at the end of the UK’s current agreement at the end of the 2021/2022 academic year, eliminates the incentive that Erasmus+ offered students to study within the European countries which were a part of the scheme. The Turing Scheme, instead offers students financial assistance (up to £380 a month and £490 for those from disadvantaged backgrounds) for placements globally, not just within the EU.
Thus, there is a real risk that Europe will become an increasingly unattractive option for students hoping to undertake a year abroad, and can we blame them? Encouraging students to travel and study outside of Europe should be encouraged, yet, having myself loved the experience of studying in Europe, I look to the current situation with sadness.
Illustration: Rosie Bromiley