Baroness Valerie Amos Image Credit: Atiq-ur-Rehman/Gulf News

Dubai: Britain’s move to trigger Article 50 on Wednesday to exit the European Union by 2019 may impact more than 3,000 UAE university students who study in the UK, a former high-ranking British diplomat said.

In an exclusive interview with Gulf News on Wednesday, Baroness Valerie Amos — the first black woman named to Britain’s cabinet and to lead a UK university — said she is worried that deepening Brexit isolationism could hurt the flow of international students into the UK.

Director of SOAS University of London, Amos said calls to slash immigration numbers under Brexit could ultimately hurt opportunities for international university students to study within the UK.

More than 3,000 UAE students enrol in UK universities every year but questions have been raised as to whether international student visas could be revoked, effectively closing the door on students from foreign countries to study abroad in Britain.

Claims that international students could be turned away from the UK have been roundly dismissed in recent months.

Amos, who was on a visit to the UAE, said international students from 135 countries — including the UAE — are enrolled at her university and bring a refreshing mix of views from abroad to the study table.

“That diversity is at the heart of who we are and what we are about at SOAS and we want that to continue. Part of my message here in the UAE to anyone coming to the university in the UK is that we remain open and prescient about that kind of international collaboration, that we see that as a huge positive,” said Amos, who was appointed as leader of the House of Lords and served as UK High Commissioner to Australia before joining the UN as Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs. She was also an adviser to the government of Nelson Mandela on leadership and change management issues.

Amos is concerned for SOAS staff and students who “feel a sense of uncertainty” amid the transition period to breaking ties with the EU.

“We have a lot of staff from European Union countries whose position is not yet clear. It is actually heartbreaking that people don’t know whether their children will be able to continue in same schools, whether their status — whether they are able to live and work in the UK — will continue. Their uncertainty is huge,” Amos said. “That uncertainty hangs over potential students and all UK universities.”

Concerns are being raised as student registrations from EU countries to study in the UK “are already falling”.

Amos noted that, on a personal level, after serving in so many international roles on behalf of the UK government, she feels her country may lose some of its ability to influence global affairs when it goes it alone.

“I recognise the nature of the concerns people have about the bureaucracy of the European Union and I respect many of those citizens. But I want Britain to continue to be at the forefront of being able to influence what’s happening in the world,” Amos said.

In a statement to Gulf News in December, a spokesperson for the UK Home Office said claims that international students would be barred are baseless.

“Claims the Home Office is modelling cuts to reduce international students to a third are categorically untrue. We want to strengthen the system to support the best universities — and those that stick to the rules — to attract the best talent,” the spokesperson told Gulf News. “However, the British people have sent a very clear message that they want more control of immigration and we are committed to getting net migration down to sustainable levels in the tens of thousands.”

The Independent newspaper reported at the time that students from abroad represent an £11 billion (Dh50.65 billion) annual injection into the UK economy and help support up to 170,000 jobs.

Major destination

Data on regional education indicators collected by Montreal-based Unesco’s Institute for Statistics shows a great many UAE students depend on UK post-secondary institutions for their studies.

Annual statistics show that 3,267 UAE students were enrolled in UK post-secondary institutions in 2014, up from 3,025 students the year before.

The figures show that UK universities are slightly more popular for UAE students than the United States, which hosted 3,094 students in 2014, up from 2,647 the year before that.

The latest numbers show that a total of 9,818 UAE students left their home country in 2015 to pursue post-secondary studies around the world.