Brexit may well have been and gone, but the ramifications will be affecting colleges for some time yet. One potential impact with an imminent deadline is whether students and staff have applied for settled status yet. The deadline for the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) is looming, giving EU/EEA/Swiss nationals just over six weeks to apply for settled status – the closing date is 30 June 2021.
At the same time, reports in the media this week are suggesting that large numbers of EU nationals have left the UK labour market altogether, exposing skills gaps and shortages that will be hard to fill. This has many consequences, with job opportunities for young people and adults potentially opening up in many sectors facing severe shortages. The question, though, is how many people have the necessary skills to fill those vacancies and how agile the funding is to support people to gain those skills when they need them.
The Home Office is now upping its communications on the EUSS with a campaign to encourage everyone eligible to apply. Applying is important to ensure that EU citizens who have made the UK their home or place of work can exercise and protect their rights. It’s hard to be certain about the take-up so far, however, given that there has never been any register or count before now. The evidence is growing that some EU nationals have left the UK because of the pandemic, some because their jobs were affected and others probably because they could work remotely.
More by David Hughes: Why the SEND review risks failing over 100,000 students
Background: What will Brexit mean for FE?
The latest figures show that 5.4 million applications have been made to the scheme, with just over 5 million grants of status, showing the cultural diversity of the UK, and the dependency we have on these people's skills and work. That’s against previous estimates that there were close to 3 million EU nationals working here. Up to 31 December 2020, Newham alone saw the highest number with 117,360 people applying to the scheme, in a borough with a population of 364,000. London accounted for seven of the top 10 local authorities by number of applications made, with Birmingham the highest outside of London.
Brexit: College students and staff eligible for the EU Settlement Scheme
Around 15 per cent of EUSS applications were from applicants under 18 years of age – potential students who could flow through the college system, and 83 per cent of applications were from those aged between 18 and 64. Oldham and Bolton had the joint highest proportion of applications from people under 18 but there are also concerns that many younger EU nationals haven't applied.
Colleges across the whole country, but particularly those in areas with large numbers of people eligible to apply, would do well to publicise the deadline. It’s likely that some will have missed it or be reluctant to apply, the consequences of which could be ineligibility for free education. Our estimate is that around 40,000 students in colleges are eligible to apply. Colleges also need to be sure to encourage staff to apply where they are eligible. Our estimate is that there are around 7,000 staff in England’s colleges eligible, about 4 per cent of the workforce.
Moving forward, colleges will need to be aware of the new set of immigration rules (the "points-based system") that covers EEA and non-EEA nationals. This means that other than those with settled status under the EUSS, EU nationals arriving for the first time after 1 January 2021 will need to come through the new immigration rules and those wishing to study will either need to have EU settled status, to study while visiting (subject to limits on time) or to obtain a student visa. Colleges wishing to enrol newly arrived EEA nationals from this year need to consider whether they will require a student sponsor licence (formerly "Tier 4" licence).
From 1 August 2021 in England, EEA nationals will no longer be eligible for home fee status, for higher education student support or for further education funding for those aged 19-plus and apprenticeships. The 16- to 19-year-olds from the EEA sponsored through the student visa route will be considered fee-paying and not eligible for public funding.
Actions now to encourage applications to EUSS and to set up systems for ensuring eligibility are essential and will prevent problems at enrolment and potentially during audits.
Meanwhile, reading the runes of the labour market might help to grow recruitment in key skills shortage areas and secure ever-stronger relationships with employers as they face up to some tough challenges themselves.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges