Can Brits get school financing post-Brexit?

Time is running out to secure an EU-UK Brexit deal. The potential impact on support for British students in Europe could limit opportunities for generations.

Low tuition fees have made Germany an increasingly popular study destination for British students. Brexit could put a stop to that.
Low tuition fees have made Germany an increasingly popular study destination for British students. Brexit could put a stop to that.
Imago Images/Photothek

Berlin-Chloe Hayward, a 23-year-old British student at Berlin’s Freie Universität, is in her fifth semester of studying French and Spanish philology. Like around one in five of all students at German universities, she receives student finance through BAföG, the German system of loans and grants for students, school pupils and trainees.

Despite the looming end of the UK’s Brexit transition period at the end of the year, meaning it and its citizens will no longer be treated like EU members, Chloe felt assured that she would continue to receive financial support until the end of her degree – and so did her personal advisor from Berlin’s BAföG office.

That was until she received a letter in November from the same department informing her that the €800 a month she currently receives is unconfirmed from January 2021. Her future studies are now racked with uncertainty.

“If it turns out that I really won’t get any BAföG anymore, I'll have to slow down the pace of my studying so that I have time to work enough hours per week to finance myself,” she says. That means cutting down from around eight courses a month to just one or two - just a year ahead of when she is on track to finish her degree.

Chloe Hayward
Chloe HaywardChloe Hayward/private

“When I first got the letter, I thought maybe I hadn't given my advisor the right documents, or they're missing something. But then he replied, 'No, it's Brexit,'” she says. “So I sent him an email, asking for clarification if there's anything I can do, but they're waiting for legislation.”

Her situation is dependent on the outcome of the ongoing UK-EU negotiations on their future relationship, and what will be agreed on education. She says the “lack of transparency” in how talks have been conducted, with the terms of a potential deal still unknown, has only increased the uncertainty of her situation.

Just over 2,700 British nationals were registered as students at German universities in last year’s winter semester. After the end of the transition period, their access to BAföG will be assessed according to the conditions of support for non-EU nationals, Federal Ministry for Education and Research spokesperson Martin Kleinemas says.

“British nationals may be eligible for support if they themselves have resided in Germany for at least five years prior to the start of their education or training programme, or if their parents have resided in Germany for at least three years within the last six years prior to the start of the training programme and have been legally employed,” he explained.

Even current students could lose out

Assurances in the Brexit withdrawal agreement between the EU and UK also mean those living in Germany for at least five years will receive permanent residency status – and with it continued entitlement to social support including BAföG. This means British residents in Germany holding the status of workers, self-employed people, those retaining that status after Brexit and their families could still have a right to support, according to Kleinemas.

However, there will be no concessions for those who are partway through their studies by the end of the year. “If British trainees or family members of British citizens do not fall under the groups of persons described, they will lose all entitlement to BAföG at the end of the transition period,” Kleinemas confirmed.

Chloe’s fear now is that she will be one of those to slip through the net. She has studied at the FU since 2018, and had previously only spent a year living in Germany while working as an au pair – she falls short of the five year mark for permanent residency. She has registered for the residency permit (Aufenthaltstitel) that Brits living in Germany will need post-Brexit – something her advisor thinks may help her case. But processing times for the around 12,000 Brits living in Berlin can be lengthy, with appointments assigned randomly.

Germany’s Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) has already confirmed that German students studying in the UK will continue to receive BAföG after Brexit. UK students, however, can’t receive mainstream student finance for studies they are undertaking abroad. That means students like Chloe could be left stuck in the middle if BAföG support is withdrawn.

Young people face losing "huge privilege"

She has received other forms of financial support, including grants from the Studierendenwerk Berlin, the city’s student union, as well as from a fund set up by FU professors. Martin Kleinemas says students aged 44 and under at state or state-recognised institutions can apply for a corona bridging loan from the KfW banking group, regardless of their citizenship and the length of their previous stay in Germany.

Chloe says temporary solutions like these can’t fully solve the challenges that could be created by a no-deal Brexit, or if continued financial support for students isn’t included in a deal.

Financial reasons are often key for Brits who choose to study in Germany - at the FU, Chloe pays no tuition fees, and her other university fees come to no more than €700 a year, including a public transport ticket covering the whole Berlin region. In the UK, tuition fees alone typically cost at least £9,250 a year.

Despite Brexit, Achim Meyer auf der Heyde, secretary general of the Deutsches Studentenwerk (German Student Union) says British students will still benefit from student services at German universities, including pastoral support, whatever happens with BAföG.

“Great Britain left the EU at its own request and since the exit, British students have therefore been treated equally to non-EU citizens,” he says. “However, this does not preclude agreements being reached that allow, for example, simplified mobility or even student financing. In any case, student services are there for British students in Germany just as they are for all other students; German, European or from other countries.”

European politicians who dream of the day when the UK might return to the EU see education access as a key piece of the jigsaw. MEPs including Guy Verhofstadt, former Brexit Coordinator in the European Parliament, argued recently for British students to continue to have access to the Erasmus study programme. Britain’s youngest generations are decidedly pro-EU, with 73 per cent of voters aged 18 to 24 backing the Remain campaign at the 2016 referendum – no other age group voted as decisively.

However, as Chloe looks to the future, she sees student finance as a central issue which will decide whether future generations of young Brits – who were too young to vote in the 2016 referendum – will have the same opportunities she has had.

“It feels like a real class issue to me, because it will be people who have full financing from their parents who can theoretically decide to come to the EU, which is a massive advantage,” she says. “But for people like me whose families can't provide financial support, it'll be pretty much a no-go.”

“Even if BAföG say I’m covered to the end of my bachelor's, it still doesn't change anything for the people who haven’t started studying or who are just finishing school now … it just seems crazy to me what a huge privilege has been taken away from people who weren’t given the choice to vote at the time.”