greek flag in the wind

Greek Students and Brexit: Between Two Changing Countries

Brexit broke the hearts of many British residents and left the country bitterly divided. It also shattered the hopes and dreams of many young Greek people currently studying in the UK.

Despite the uncertainty and the difficulties that will follow after Brexit, Greek students are determined to fight for their right to study and stay in the UK rather than go back to an economy with no sign of improvement.

Aggeliki Tsiftsi is an MSc Clinical Psychology student. While studying in the library next to a pile of books, she talks about her arrival in the UK and how relieved she was to leave Greece.

“Greece’s education system and job sector are decades behind. Meritocracy does not exist anymore. There is no reason for me to go back in a country that is slowly killing itself and its people,” she says with no sign of regret in her voice.  

Tsiftsi believes it is easier to deal with Brexit than with reality back in Greece.

“When I arrived in London, I got the feeling that I am a citizen who is respected, my opinion is heard, everyone is polite to me and everything is organised,” she said.

“That doesn’t happen in Greece.”

Greek university students are the fifth most populous group of foreign students in UK. In 2014-2015, 10.130 Greek students were enrolled in British universities across the country. Young people from Greece are still coming to the UK as there are still more opportunities here than in Greece, regardless of the Brexit vote.

Greece is currently going through an economic crisis that has shown no signs of improvement. The International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission have given Greece two international bailouts which sum up to €240 billion, or around £204 bilion. However, the bailout money has not assisted the country’s economy and has instead gone to repaying loans. As a result, unemployment was up to 25.6% in 2015 and Greece is required to make deep budget cuts and impose harsh tax increases.

On top of that, if a Greek student completes a degree in the UK and goes back to Greece in search of work, there is a chance the degree will not be recognised by the Greek Ministry of Education, as degrees not obtained from Hellenic universities are not recognised by the state.

“Someone in a public Greek university, who might finish his degree in 7 years, will be able to get to a job whereas I, who finished all my studies on time will, most probably be unemployed,” Tsiftsi explains.  

From her tiny 12.5m2 room in a student accommodation, Evianna Nikitaki says she also hopes she can stay in the UK after completing her Masters in Child Psychology. She is another one of the 12.000 Greeks who study here in hopes of joining the 52.000 who live and work permanently in Britain. But Brexit presents a new close-minded era in the UK.

“I think it’s tragic for someone to be bigoted in 2016,” Ms. Nikitaki says.

“British people have to understand that when foreigners come to the UK from so many different countries to study and work here, those people are working for the UK and its citizens. They work for the country that openly accepted them and only want to give back for what they have received.”    

The truth is harsh not only for Greeks, but for every EU citizen in Britain as Brexit moves closer and closer. Student fees for EU citizens studying in the UK are going to rise by 30-40%, while student loans are going to be limited. Those who decide to stay will have to face the loss of the rights that the EU provided them, such as the right to work, reside, retire, vote and have access to welfare and the health system — privileges which were previously considered a given.

According to a Kingston University spokesperson, the universities have “committed to being open outward looking.” Educational institutions have to make sure that “during this exit process there will be significant opportunities for the universities to help shape future higher education policies in Britain,” the spokesman added.

Despite the economic crisis in Greece, some Greek students do want to go back to their roots — far away from Brexit and its aftermath. They recognise the difficulties they will undoubtedly face on their return. Greece has been in this crisis since 2010, and the increasing debt and austerity measures are only getting worse. Nevertheless, they prefer to return and work in Greece as they would rather struggle in a country they consider home.

Dimitra Giala and Spyros Vlasseros came to the UK for their MA degrees as a couple. After they finish their studies they want to work back in Greece.

“I cannot see myself living here, mostly because of the uncertainty and fear of what is going to come with Brexit,” Giala explains.

“It is going to be easier to find a job in Greece. I have better connections, no language barrier, and I feel more like home,” Vlasseros adds.

“We know that the Greek economy is not improving. But the British economy is also going down the pit. We prefer to be in a bad economy in a country that we feel welcomed rather than staying in the UK where every right that we are now entitled to is going to be taken away.”

Dame Julia Goodfellow, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent, has called on the UK government for immediate action to be taken to “prevent a likely sudden decline in EU student applications” in the UK.

“I urge Government to take swift and positive action to address uncertainty, prevent a likely sudden decline in EU student applications and provide much needed reassurance to prospective EU students and universities across the UK,” she said.

Many Greek students who want to come and study and work in the UK in 2017 and beyond hope that Dame Julia Goodfellow’s words are heard by the government, too.

— Thisvi Papanastasiou

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