Brexit and Coronavirus, A Year Abroad Student’s Living Nightmare

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Many UK students hoping to embark on their year abroad are instead stuck in this constant limbo – will we go or won’t we? And at the moment, it sadly feels like the latter due to the aftermath of Brexit and COVID restrictions.

New COVID sanitary measures have resulted in flights abroad becoming practically impossible due to escalating cases worldwide. However, as of 1 January 2021, this unrelenting virus may now have a partner in crime – Brexit. 

Students who are arriving in EU countries must now submit a seemingly never-ending slew of paperwork to obtain visas for a long stay trip abroad, with requirements differing by country. This process has become all the more arduous due to the limited communication between the Foreign office and academic officers. Not to mention the government’s lack of understanding of the issues University students are confronted with. 

Julia Waters, a professor of French and the year abroad coordinator at the University of Reading spoke to the Guardian about how the lack of guidance provided by the government has affected students. “The UK government guidance remains insufficient – full of unhelpful ‘you may need’ phrases and links to other, EU government sites that often contradict that guidance. It’s all proving very confusing, stressful and expensive for students who until recently had freedom of movement.”

Navigating across the EU government sites in the hope of finding the correct information feels like a fool’s errand. It would be a lot easier finding a needle not just in one haystack but across the whole farm. In my own experience, there was a lot of conflicting information regarding whether I needed a work placement VISA or a student internship VISA. That was when it slowly started to sink in just how meticulous the VISA office requirements now are.

When I arrived at the VISA centre in London, another student told me about the lack of clarity as to what was needed in her appointment. “I needed proof of being a student so I showed her my student card,” she explained. “However, I was told that it wasn’t enough. The woman told me I needed to show her my UCAS acceptance letter from three years ago so I had to frantically search through my phone.” The whole experience resembled an unpleasant doctor’s appointment, with the constant poking and prodding of our paperwork in an attempt to find some underlying fault. 

Unfortunately, the arduous process doesn’t end at the interview. In fact, little did we know many of us had just reached the first hurdle. Despite not being stated on the official French government website; we require specific forms to be stamped by an organisation called the ‘Direccte’, with whom communication is proving impossible.

My work supervisor had to liaise with them to look over my paperwork and stamp it to approve travel. Yet, she later informed me how despite sending a myriad of emails and making three phone calls daily, the ‘Direccte’ are still yet to respond. Thus, as it stands, my year abroad is now well and truly on hold. 

Although my friend had a similar issue with poor communication, she did actually get an email back. You’d presume that was the end of it? Sadly, that was not the case. She was then informed she needed to provide additional documents, all of which were already given at the interview stage. Upon doing that, they told her she would have to translate the documents into French. 

On top of these particulars, students must also prove that they can afford their stay in some countries. This includes providing proof of more than €6,000 (£5,194) in their bank account in Austria, Italy and Portugal. In Germany, Denmark and Sweden the minimum amount of income is €700-€800 a month. Rob Pearce, studying languages at the University of Sheffield brought the financial dilemmas year abroad students face to the forefront. He reportedly knew someone who “had to pay up to a grand in visa fees to go to Belgium. “You also need to be able to prove you can afford to be there. I will never at any point have £5,000 just sitting in my account.”

Despite us adhering to every single demand, there is always a barrier to overcome. 

The Foreign Office have said it was working with universities to address challenges. However, from my own experience, university guidance has been either poor or shows complete ignorance of the current situation. The MLAC department didn’t inform us about how Brexit would affect our travel plans. Instead, they just referred us to government websites. When I informed them that COVID-19 restrictions now prevent students from travelling to France, the response was simply: “let’s hope this new initiative from the French government won’t last too long.”

As you can see from this response, there is no advice on steps going forward. I currently have a visa application, accommodation needing to be paid for, and a year abroad that goes towards my degree all up in the air. However, the MLAC department has offered no solution to these problems leaving me in the lurch. The effects of COVID-19 could never have been predicted – but those of Brexit have been. 

Many Modern Languages students must complete their year abroad studies or placements virtually in order to graduate. As such, students are missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live in a new country, to experience a new culture and, most importantly, have valuable exposure to the language. This is something a textbook could never replicate.

Words by Katie Heyes


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