As the discomforting reality of our decision to leave the European Union emerges from a morass of inflated claims, deliberate distortion and downright falsehood, many in further education and skills are beginning to see the likely post-Brexit skills shortage as an unprecedented opportunity for the sector.
Inevitably, a reduction in imported skills will increase our reliance on homegrown talent. Brexit is already having an impact on the UK’s skills profile. Net migration is down due to EU citizens emigrating from the UK while last month’s KPMG survey of European Union workers suggested that almost a million EU citizens working in Britain are either planning to leave the UK or have made up their minds to do so. This significant loss of talent – many of those opting to leave are highly qualified and working in sectors where skilled staff are hard to recruit – will hit the economy hard. With freedom of movement likely to end or be substantially constrained after Brexit, employers will increasingly have to look elsewhere for the skills they need and increasing investment in homegrown skills and talent would seem the obvious response.
Optimism about the post-Brexit status of the FE and skills sector was much in evidence at the Further Education Trust for Leadership's 2017 summer symposium, "Rising to the challenge". Aaron Bowater, programme manager and senior researcher at Policy Connect, argued that the implications of Brexit had "radically brought home to policymakers that, when it comes to the UK’s skills base, the buck cannot be passed any longer", while Seamus Nevin, head of employment and skills policy at the Institute of Directors, described Brexit as a potential "catalyst for the transformation of our skills system". Both cited the government’s industrial strategy as evidence of the increased prominence of FE and skills in policy thinking. We might add to this the main parties’ general election manifestos, all of which made significant mention of further education.
However, as Andrew Harden, head of further education at the University and College Union, argued, there is something unsatisfactory about this way of framing the discussion: first, because it gives too little credit to the sector’s own efforts to raise its profile and reverse the trend of cuts to provision that has been characteristic of legislative efforts since the 2010 general election (remember that it was the 2015 spending review that brought some measure of stability to the sector after years of cuts); second, because there is a danger of our passively waiting for change rather than proactively seeking to drive it.
'FE is more than plugging skills'
I believe it essential that we do this. As James Kirkup, director of the Social Market Foundation, noted at July’s symposium, the "mentality and approach to society that gave us Brexit" is also the mindset that led to FE being regarded as "for other people". Years of neglect and underinvestment – across public services, but in further education most acutely – helped create an economic and political climate in which Brexit could happen. In retrospect, swingeing cuts to FE and skills can be seen as an important marker on the road to Brexit.
That is why we should be cautious in thinking that growing skills gaps and shortages will prompt policymakers to invest more than warm words in the sector. I have been around Whitehall for long enough to know that simply because an idea is good or seems obvious and necessary does not mean it will happen, or that it will happen in the right way.
But there is a more fundamental point here which James also picked up: FE has a better story to tell than that of its role in plugging skills gaps. Further education needs to embody the kind of change it wants to see in society. It needs to see itself not simply as the solution to an economic problem about ensuring an adequate supply of skills. It should instead be part of a wider cultural change through which opportunities are shared out more equally and education is recognized as crucial to helping everyone in society achieve their full potential and publicly supported as such.
It is clear that this sort of wider vision of the role and purpose of FE and skills will not emerge from Whitehall – at least not anytime soon. It is down to FE’s leaders to shape thinking in this area and to position the sector as central in creating a fairer, more equal and more democratic polity. Certainly, the prominent role given to skills in the government’s industrial strategy is encouraging but we are still some way short of the kind of vision that would do justice to the sector’s vast, transformational potential.
One of the lessons of Brexit is that, as a society, we face a range of problems which go far beyond economic considerations and worries about skills shortages, important though they are. The quality of political debate in recent months and the fundamental lack of probity in its conduct should alone give us cause for serious thought about how our democracy functions, the kind of society we want and how our education system can help create it. The kind of education offer we present says a great deal about the sort of society we strive to be. If we want a society that is fair, creative, resilient, cohesive and productive, we need to radically rethink the way we do things. Further education and skills must be central to that re-evaluation.
Dame Ruth Silver is founding president of the Further Education Trust for Leadership