Fears over UK student fees may spark points race
Irish students starting their degrees in Britain later this year could be financially frustrated mid-course if the Brexit button is pushed this autumn.
And in a changed education landscape, points may rise for courses and high-achieving students who wanted to study in Britain may now stay at home, increasing competition for places.
Students have now been advised to confirm with their university of choice in Britain that existing arrangements will not change, regardless of political developments.
Universities UK, which represents British third-level colleges, admitted it is "still assessing" the possible effects of the referendum result when queried by the Sunday Independent. Legal experts warn that if Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is activated by Brexit hardliners in a matter of months, the UK could unilaterally withdraw from the EU, following a two-year period.
In such a scenario, Universities UK could not specifically confirm that Irish students will not face a hike in fees in the middle of their degree course, on the basis they may then be classified as 'foreign' students.
Similarly, the British Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, in response to a number of queries, refused to provide absolute clarity on the matter. There are concerns that fees for Irish students in the UK may significantly rise following a British exit, amid speculation that in the absence of strict EU restraints, British colleges will be tempted to charge the 'market rate' for their courses.
Some of the better known universities may resort to this option to improve funding - given they will be under unprecedented pressure if Britain slides into post-Brexit recession.
Jo Johnson, the UK's Minister of State for Universities and Science, said there is "no immediate changes" for EU nationals and students studying at UK universities. He also confirmed that EU students who are eligible to receive loans and grants, will continue to do so for courses they are currently enrolled on, or about to start this coming year.
However, when queried by the Sunday Independent, a spokesman refused to address whether an absolute guarantee can be offered to Irish students that fees will not change for the entire duration of their degree course, should Britain formally leave the EU during the period of their studies.
Universities UK says it is now "seeking urgent clarification" on a variety of issues from the British government and the EU.
A spokeswoman for the organisation said it will "take time for some of the more difficult questions to be answered."
Meanwhile, our own Department of Education has stated that negotiations on the future EU-UK relationship will now be required, according to a spokesperson.
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Kevin Donoghue, president of the Union of Students' of Ireland (USI), stressed there should be no immediate concern by those beginning courses in the UK in the coming academic year.
However, there's "no guarantee" that fees paid by Irish students in first and second year will remain the same for the remainder of their course, should Britain formally leave the EU in two years' time.
"It's within the power of the institution to make that decision. I suggest Irish students should call the institution they're applying to and get clarification, " he said.
"The policy of UK universities and government in the past 10 years has essentially been to get as much money as possible out of students."
Students enrolling this autumn can also be consoled that most commentators feel that if Brexit does go ahead, it will be a number of years before the details of a complicated departure strategy will be finalised.
And while this may be a source of continuing unease for Irish students down the road, there is hope that this year's intake will have the protection of EU guidelines for the duration of their college years.
Fianna Fail's education spokesperson Thomas Byrne said that while students have no immediate reason to be fearful about their 'EU student' status, there is uncertainty as regards the future.
Meanwhile, with 10,905 Irish students currently studying in the UK and 2,169 full-time UK students in Irish universities, MEP Brian Hayes warned that if the flow of students reverses because EU fees no longer apply, it could put significant pressure on Ireland's third-level education system.
"Not only will there be a demand for more places, but if the number of students chasing courses increases, it's inevitable that points will go up," he added.