Continental drift

The mere threat by the UK government of an in-out referendum on Europe is creating concern among those in the Scottish college sector who over the years have worked to deliver programmes supported by European funds.

Opinion polls suggest that it is quite possible the Conservatives will be back in power after May's general election, perhaps in another coalition. It is therefore no idle concern that we may face a period of increasing uncertainty regarding our position within the European Union, with a referendum looming in 2017.

I recently discussed the European dimension with Dugald Craig of the West of Scotland Colleges' Partnership. He observed that the college sector had played a "significant role" in delivering the Scottish government's ambitions for funds such as the European Social Fund (ESF) and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

He added, however, that "colleges' scope for accessing these funds is now limited", and that we must exploit the relevance of Curriculum for Excellence and the Wood Commission, and the range of transnational funding programmes that support the EU's agenda for education, skills, innovation, employment and poverty reduction.

Funding for these programmes has increased significantly for the period 2014-20. However, with a very few notable exceptions, the performance of Scottish colleges in accessing them has so far been modest.

EU expansion always meant there would be a reduction in funding available for national programmes in the UK. Thus, the partnership has been encouraging the sector to build capacity and position itself to make the most of transnational funding programmes. Not only do these fit well with the Scottish partnership working but they also offer grant levels of up to 80 per cent of costs - almost twice the level provided by the ESF and ERDF.

However, political uncertainties over EU membership create problems for this strategy. First, leaving the EU would mean that all four UK nations would lose access to billions of pounds' worth of funding and the expertise and effective practice generated by working with our European neighbours. Second, Euroscepticism may undermine Scotland's image as a champion of transnational partnership-working, and this could linger even if the UK remains in the EU. Which partners are going to be keen to enter agreements with Scottish colleges if they think the UK may withdraw from EU membership?

It is of little consolation to people like Craig that opinion polls suggest people in Scotland are much more likely to support continuing EU membership than those in the rest of the UK. For the foreseeable future, Scotland's colleges are inextricably linked to the politics of the UK regarding the European Union. Time for a plan B, anyone?

Roger Mullin is an honorary professor at the University of Stirling and an adviser on post-16 educational reform

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