Last month, universities in England announced a tuition fee increase above the £9,000 limit for UK nationals registering for an undergraduate degree in 2017. If, like many, these students decide to pursue a Masters degree afterwards, the bill rises to well above £30,000. These are just the tuition fees; if one is interested in the full cost of higher education, then living costs (currently estimated to reach at least £300 per week in London) need to be added. A student registering for a four-year degree next year will thus face total costs in the region of £45,000; however, students who borrow the maximum amount for tuition fees and living costs will end up with a £53,000 debt after just three years of study.
Looking at these exorbitant numbers, I feel lucky I'm not in my twenties and no longer have to worry about getting a higher education degree. Given my socio-economic background, growing up in a country (France) where university diplomas are still affordable to all was definitively sheer luck. I'm from a working class background: debt is what my family tried to avoid for generations, and higher education wasn't perceived by most of my relatives as a requirement for success. Thankfully, my tuition fees were less than £100 a year and I received a financial support from the government to help cover part of my living costs. This allowed me to focus on my studies, ultimately get the grades required to enter a PhD programme, and start my adult life as a scientist without a debt.
That said, I also have a little boy who is growing up in England - and given the annual rises in tuition fees I have witnessed over the past 10 years, I wonder how we, as a family, are going to cover the costs of his higher education should he also want to go to university. One option is to look for a solution abroad. The universities where I studied are indeed not just taking on French students: increasingly, these institutions, and many more in other European countries, run Undergraduate and Postgraduate programmes in English, which are open to everyone. Tuition fees for European students are still comparable to the fees I paid 20 years ago, and living costs there are also dramatically lower.
Access to an affordable education is just one of the many advantages European passport holders benefit from. Being able to secure better paid work, or a job that is a better fit with your dream career, is another one. Take me, for example - I always wanted to work in conservation. The problem is that conservation isn't big in France, and so job opportunities in the sector I was interested in were rare. I could have settled for something different in my birth country, but giving up on your dreams at 20 wasn't exactly on the table - and anyway, the chances are that I wouldn't be as happy and enthusiastic about my job as I am now. So I moved, because I could, and this allowed me to do what I wanted to do with my life, and access positions and places I never thought I could get to.
Much has been said about the disadvantages associated with freedom of movement, with a clear emphasis on this principle preventing governments from imposing tougher migration restrictions on people wanting to enter the UK. However, much less has been written on how ending freedom of movement could prevent many young Brits from achieve their potential and becoming the best version of themselves.
Freedom of movement doesn't just support economic growth nationally through the benefits businesses and research institutions gain from the confidence that they can recruit the best specialists abroad; its impact can't just be reduced to numbers of migrants claiming benefits. Freedom of movement needs to be appreciated for its tangible contribution to individual development: it is one part of the fundamental freedoms supporting the emergence of home-grown talents and leaders, opening new opportunities to underprivileged youth. This contribution cannot be ignored in the coming Brexit negotiations, as what will be decided then will have a phenomenal impact on what opportunities remain available to the Brits of tomorrow.
This September, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in partnership with the British Ecological Society, the Royal Society of Biology, the Campaign for Science and Engineering and Wildlife and Countryside Link, is organising a high profile panel debate event that will highlight the key role UK science plays in helping our society address current and upcoming challenges. Freedom of movement will be abundantly discussed during the meeting, given the support it provides to the current and future scientific community when it comes to delivering excellence and informing governmental decisions in the face of uncertainty. I hope many of you will take the opportunity to join us on the day.
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