Secret Lecturer: Funding, staffing and that bugbear Brexit

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Summer weather (so far this week), summer term, and summer Brexit? Maybe. We’ve had a welcome lull in Brexit news over the past few days, but with a new, long term ahead of us at our college, thoughts are beginning to turn to preparations for a new year in September, funding and teaching needs, and fresh intakes. 

However, whether we have left or voted to stay in the EU by the next Brexit deadline of October 31 this year, the good news is that there will not be any potentially major implications for FE colleges until beyond December 2020 – the current date by which EU funding (which makes up an average 1-2% of colleges’ total income) should be coming to an end. 

Less well-off regions get bulk of EU funding 

The questions we need answers to are what happens in 2020-21 and beyond? And how do we best lobby for replacement funding – and more of it? 

Most EU funding for colleges comes from the long-standing European Social Fund (ESF). Although 1-2% (up to £100m+) seems minuscule when averaged out across all colleges, the bulk of it goes to a small number of colleges in less well-off areas where it makes up considerably more than 1-2% of their income. 

Nothing is certain. The government’s planned public consultation paper on its proposed UK Shared Prosperity Fund designed to fill the large void that would be left by no ESF is now 18 months overdue. And we all know the money we have so far been paying into the EU has been promised in all directions. Remember that bus-side claim about NHS payments?

EU funding could continue until 2023

But this month’s updated Brexit position paper from the Association of Colleges (AoC) says the government hopes a deal would allow it to pay into the EU budget and take part in programmes until December 2020, meaning the ESF would effectively continue until 2023 because of ongoing projects. If not, the government would guarantee Treasury funding at the same level until December 2020 and then the Department of Work and Pensions would continue to sign contracts after that date. 

The AoC’s advice to all colleges remains the same:  don’t waste a huge amount of time preparing for any number of possible Brexit scenarios; instead, simply focus on understanding the possible effects on staff and students, work out what college supplies might be at risk and sit tight on our cash till things eventually become clearer. But we can also lobby: EU Vat rules leave FE colleges 2% worse off than school sixth form colleges. That’s surely something to work on.

Recruitment and retention need special focus

Another big imponderable is staffing. The AoC estimates around 7,000 EU nationals teach in the FE sector, making up about 4% of total FE staff, although no official data exists on the EU proportion of staff in colleges. Some 5% of colleges report more than 20 EU/plus EEA (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) nationals as teachers, while 12% say they have none. Not only could some now be opting to go home because their home economies are now forging ahead, but other, mostly younger teachers may be finding better pay in mainland Europe and/or just not feel so welcome in the UK (even though colleges value them highly).

Demographics also heighten the pressure; there is an increase in young adults in the UK who have not so far lived long enough to gain the skillsets of older workers now getting close to retirement.  

Lobby for a rule change or two

Again, though, colleges could help stem the exodus by lobbying a) for teachers to be made exempt from the Immigration White Paper proposal to take only skilled EU workers in shortage occupations and whose jobs pay a minimum £30,000 annual salary; b) to extend the list of shortage occupations; and c) to enable teachers working on short-term visas to apply for longer-term equivalents.

There are some ways in this Brexit chaos where colleges can make their voices heard. We will be asked to tackle head-on the much-anticipated skills gap if we do eventually leave the EU, so now’s the time to take stock and think strategically, strange times or not.

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