Secret Lecturer: Big ‘buts’ over Brexit

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The prime minister’s plea that MPs should return in the supportive mood for her Brexit ‘deal’ from their seasonal break fell on deaf ears – several said their views had become even more deep-seated. Reflecting over Christmas on what 2019 and this week’s historic vote could now mean for my college and sector, I’ve summarised some of our basic fears about Brexit.

First and foremost, the FE sector is a ‘people’ business – and the curbs on movement of people post-Brexit (if we still leave) has been among colleges’ key concerns throughout the Brexit debate that came to a head this week with a thumping ‘no’ vote on Theresa May’s deal. 

Funding is a key concern

In England alone, some 40,000 EU nationals are studying (2% of the total FE student population), and across the UK an estimated 7,000 are employed in teaching, admin and support roles (4% of the college workforce). 

Apart from fearing erosion of many of the cultural and educational ties and friendships built up with other European countries over the years of EU membership, particularly since the Maastricht Treaty and its freedom of movement clause, there is the worry of funding – according to a recent TES analysis, colleges are set to lose more than £31m in EU funding. 

Uncertainty has already seen a drop-off in EU students applying to study in the UK – and thus less tuition fee income – even though existing EU funding conditions are currently meant to continue until 2021. And the long-standing European Social Fund (ESF), which has helped support retraining and upskilling of many thousands of people, is due to be replaced by the government’s proposed Shared Prosperity Fund, although there is no certainty that it will provide funds on the same scale as the ESF.

Rivals ‘thank’ us for Brexit

As AoC’s deputy chief exec Julian Gravatt wrote recently, in post-18 education, students could again have to pay the higher international student fees required before Maastricht. It would mean “an end to 30 years of equal education funding”.

The beneficiaries of such funding uncertainty are, of course, rival institutions in the US, Canada and Australia, which have seen an increase in student applications and, as AoC chief executive David Hughes has said, are “thanking us for Brexit”. 

Whatever happens, the damage has already been done to the UK’s reputation as a Mecca for education. The value of student exchange schemes such as Erasmus, which has allowed so many UK and other EU students to live and study in each others’ countries, has been overlooked. Erasmus has shown thousands of our students a positive, constructive side to being part of Europe and fought against a natural inbred wariness of things new and different. Even if we don’t leave the EU, relationships overseas have already changed.

The timing could be better

Another problem is timing. Our colleges have a high reputation for technical training, and now demand is growing from emerging economies for an unskilled workforce and the need for support and expertise in how to develop their own education and skills systems. Ironically, at the same time, Britain is cutting itself off from Europe while still reeling from continuing austerity cuts. 

The government’s public spending review, due to start in March and continuing through the summer, will help determine UK spending patterns for the next three to five years. But will it alleviate or exacerbate the situation where now, according to the Guardian, enrolments for skills courses since 2010 have fallen by more than 60% to less than 2m among over-25s, including drops of 37% among those gaining construction qualifications, 68% (engineering), 68% (health and social care) and 89% (IT)? Austerity measures have ended grants, meaning many adults with family and job responsibilities can’t find the fees. 

Minimum salary limit could cause havoc

So the skills gap is widening and yet current Brexit proposals only permit entry to Britain by overseas workers able to show they have jobs to go to that pay a minimum £30,000 pa. As David Hughes points out, this will hamper recruitment for post-16 roles that the UK needs to be filled during the 2020s. Something has to give.

Whatever the UK’s future in Europe, colleges have a huge role to play in filling the widening skills gap and in reassuring our friends and neighbours in Europe and across the world that we still very much welcome – and need - people from overseas.

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