I witnessed the Brexit referendum as a politically-curious 12-year-old. I could never have imagined I could count the years until it upheaved my dreams on one hand.
When the referendum ran in 2016, alongside it came so much misinformation at times you could wonder if anything was true at all. The outlandish claim that the United Kingdom sent 350 million pounds to the European Union annually from Boris Johnson’s Vote Leave campaign, springing to mind. But one claim was surely true, no generation would be so affected by Brexit as mine.
It is not uncommon for the youth to feel cast aside in politics. Despite claims of speaking “for the youth” on each side of the Brexit debate, this is as much the case now as ever. This sentiment is particularly true for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, isolated in a world of deprivation and poverty.
‘An escape from discrimination’
Since I was a young boy, my family has always described me as ‘the one who will make it’ – I was always expected to be the first to attend university and to escape the impoverishment that had chained my family to the underbelly of society. Although perhaps there is a level of irony in that the debt of a student loan would far exceed the scale of any debt my family had faced, and this thought had always left me conflicted.
It is not surprising, then, that I was heavily drawn to the Norwegian university system. Free public university – a fair and balanced society – an escape from financial and class discrimination that to this day remains Britain’s hamartia. Sadly, what for Norway is normal, for my own country is a distant dream.
Come 2020, and it is time for me to apply. I remember still the dejecting feeling of having to apply separately as a Non-EU student in November, kept apart from those applying from the EU later. I remember still the devastating impact of reading, halfway into the application process, that my student visa required a £10,000 deposit to be paid in full within eight months.
Perhaps it was my own ignorance and giddy romanticisation of a life in Norway, but I never for a moment considered the possibility of such a steep financial roadblock, one which only existed because I was applying post-Brexit.
I was immediately calling family members, desperate for a solution but there was no feasible way even the wealthiest of my family could afford to help. My wonderful aunt was only a heartbeat away from investing her entire wedding fund. Ultimately, however, I was left to face the cold reality that in post-Brexit Britain I would be left to suffer as a low-income student.
‘The world is watching us laughing’
It was with a cold chill that I read that British participation in the Erasmus scheme, an EU program which funded one year of international study for British university students, was cancelled in the final week of 2020. How will low-income students like myself ever experience the world outside of the United Kingdom? The replacement UK-funded ‘Turing Scheme’ is only a fractional percentage of the scale – is this the ‘taking back control’ they fought for?
For students like myself it feels less like an age-old us-versus-the-world cliche, but instead us-versus-our-own government. We feel isolated. We feel we are watching the greatest act of self-sabotage there has ever been, and the world is watching us laughing.
What could I have done differently? Even if I had known of the new £10,000 visa fee to enter Norway, should I have drained what little money my family could give to fund it? It seems like no matter how I look at this, I had no choice but to apply for a British university and begin my adult life £27,000 in debt.
‘What more can be done?’
It is difficult for me to not feel resentment for those who voted leave, ignorant of the chains Brexit would clasp on my generation. It is difficult for me to not feel resentment towards a government which continues to act in some superficial performance, claiming in our interests.
Is it just that the same older generations who sneer at us for being spineless ‘snowflakes’ are the same generation that call us ‘entitled’ when we speak out? Is it fair that the only path in life I can take without bringing shame to my family places me in tens of thousands of pounds of debt before I am 21?
I think not, but what more can be done? Perhaps reading my story will provide consolidation to some of those low-income students like myself who have been burned by Brexit. Perhaps to know that there is a generation of others their age who share their anger, resentment and desire for change could be enough to help somebody.
All I know is that I will not stay silent whilst my future is being challenged and restrained and I will not allow control of my path in life to be taken from me. I know that more can be done to support my generation. I know that the government’s half-hearted efforts to appease us will not satisfy our need for retribution, nor heal our pain.