"It’s often our main lunch-time topic", says Kenneth Duncan, who is studying the evolution of galaxies and black holes. "Everyone’s wondering what the impact will be", says Matthew Kenworthy, a British colleague who is conducting research at the Leiden Observatory. "Not just my fellow countrymen here, my Dutch colleagues are wondering about it too. In the worst case, a hard Brexit, Europe won’t fund British researchers any more, which will affect researchers from the Netherlands and other countries too, because there is a lot of international collaboration in disciplines like astronomy."
"It’s not at all clear whether other parties will provide funds, in that case", Duncan continues. Moreover, immigration laws might be tightened, meaning that fewer scientists can work in the United Kingdom. Kenworthy: "We really need each other’s knowledge."
That’s what professors in Oxford are saying too, says Marit de Roij, a Mare columnist; she is following up her studies in Leiden with a master’s degree at Oxford. "All anyone talks about is Brexit. It seems to be the only topic, although no one knows exactly what they’re talking about. Privately, I think it’s actually quite funny. Professors constantly share Brexit memes on social media, because it’s a subject close to their heart."
Brexit could have huge financial consequences for students. A year at Oxford already costs 15,000 Euros, and that could easily treble. "Most students won’t go to Oxford in that case", De Roij adds. In the meantime, Oxford University is trying to reassure everyone. "They regularly hold meetings where they tell us that the chances that international students will be impacted are small, but they can’t give us any guarantees; they are doing their best to lobby the government." The students also organise talks to which they invite well-known politicians for debates. "Recently, they invited Nigel Farage, the Brexiteer. There was a lot of interest for that."
Things are different in Leiden, says Emily (25), from Britain (she does not want her surname in the paper). She’s doing a master’s degree in History. The university has not actively sought contact with British students, except for posting some information on the website. "The university must realise that students are not just numbers. Imagine that you’re eighteen, just starting on your bachelor’s degree far from home, you really need more support."
Gaping legal vacuum
British student Peter Banks (19, International Studies) is glad of the arrangements the universities have made among themselves. "Almost immediately after the referendum, British and European universities arranged to continue working together. Leiden has a very good partnership with the University of Edinburgh. Those ties will remain, although they need to be put down on paper again very soon."
Banks has been politically active since he was very young; at present, he’s campaigning for Remain for the Liberal Democrats. "I couldn’t vote because I was only sixteen at the time. One of our campaign leaders was only thirteen. The people voted for this mess, but in my estimate, 85 per cent of my generation want to stay in Europe. If we can’t, any deal is genuinely better than a hard Brexit. The damage is going to be huge otherwise: it will be the most uncertain situation for the British since the Second World War. There will be a gaping legal vacuum, because none of the European legislation will apply, and the pound will plummet. Students who want to study in Leiden, for instance, would have to pay institution tuition fees, which would mean fewer British students coming to the EU, and the guarantees surrounding the Erasmus programme would disappear. The same would apply to Horizon 2020, the EU subsidy fund for research en innovation. The British academics at Wijnhaven would probably not be able to finish their sensitive study of security issues."
Despite all the uncertainty, Kenworthy is pleased with the way the Dutch government is providing information for international researchers. "The Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service and the government are doing their best to ensure we can stay here after a hard Brexit. But that would mean that we wouldn’t be EU citizens any more, so it would cost us a lot of money, plus all the paperwork we’d have to plough through. He regards the British politicians as "cowards", because, frightened of losing votes, they won’t admit that Brexit should be abandoned. "At the moment, I’m ashamed to be British."
For students, too, these are uncertain times. Emily, for instance, would like to know whether she can hold on to her part-time job at a pub. "Luckily, the council sends us information by post on how things stand, but at the moment, so many things are still unclear."
She’s even considering taking Dutch nationality when she graduates next year. "I would never have thought about this before Brexit. I’ve built up a life here, so I’d like to stay."
De Roij expects to have graduated in time to avoid any trouble. "I’m studying here until the summer of 2020, so I’ll have left by then."
By Vincent Bongers, Sebastitaan van Loosbroek en Susan Wichgers