But putting aside the actual process for leaving the EU, more relevant questions for those involved in the long-term strategic planning of their higher education institutions is what will happen to the rules and regulations which are currently derived from the EU and what are the implications likely to be in terms of staff and students?
There are three main questions that arise:
At present we have no way of knowing the answers to any of those questions, but we can still make educated guesses piecing together the small bits of information which have emerged so far.
Various suggestions have been made as to what an immigration scheme for EU nationals would look like:
Recent comments from the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, have suggested that free movement which does not require any form of registration is not an option, so it seems likely at this stage that EU nationals wishing to live (and work or study) in the UK will need some form of residence documentation. On that basis, unfettered free movement from the EU is highly unlikely to continue and that will be coupled with further restrictions on some non-EU immigration categories, like students.
It also seems unlikely that EU nationals would be required to comply with the same rules that non-EU nationals are currently subject to, as this would surely cause a great deal of upset and make negotiations even more difficult. So a hybrid scheme for EU nationals which sits independently of existing immigration controls appears to be the most likely route. Whether such a scheme would automatically permit work following registration, or an additional application for work permission would then be required, remains to be seen.
As for the situation for EU nationals already in the UK, nothing has yet changed for them as far as their rights to live and work or study in the UK are concerned. However, many will now be concerned about their future.
Even holders of permanent residence documentation may not be guaranteed any right of residence in the UK post-Brexit.
The government's negotiations with the EU about its departure from the EU will focus on EU nationals already in the UK and UK nationals living in other parts of the EU. It is reasonable to assume that transitional arrangements will be put in place for EU nationals who are already here but those people may wish to apply for documentation in order to confirm their status. Such an application only attracts an application fee of £65 per applicant and although the backlog is now reportedly in excess of 100,000, it might help to have this documentation if an EU national wishes to assert his/her rights to live here post Brexit.
The documentation which an EU national can obtain depends on whether or not he/she has acquired permanent residence. If he/she has been exercising free movement rights in the UK for five years then he/she can consider applying for a document certifying permanent residence. If the individual has not yet acquired permanent residence then he/she can apply for a registration certificate as confirmation that he/she is in the UK and exercising one of the free movement rights.
Family members of EU nationals (both EU nationals themselves and non-EU national family members) can also apply for documentation to evidence their right to live and work or study in the UK.
Finally, EU nationals and their family members who have acquired permanent residence may wish to consider applying to naturalise as a British citizen. Even holders of permanent residence documentation may not be guaranteed any right of residence in the UK post-Brexit, but those who have been naturalised as British citizens should have no such concerns.
A couple of things to note about this though: firstly, applications to naturalise from EU nationals and their family members can only be made after permanent residence documentation has been issued; and secondly, while the UK permits a British citizen to have more than one nationality, some EU countries do not, so acquisition of British citizenship could lead to the loss of other citizenships in which case individuals would need to decide for themselves which citizenship is more important to them.
It looks unlikely that there will be any clarity on post Brexit immigration for some months but in the meantime there are steps that EU students and staff can take which may provide them with some reassurance in these uncertain times and hopefully put them in a stronger position when the a new immigration scheme for EU nationals is implemented.