How Brexit uncertainty is 'hurting colleges'

The Augar review, apprenticeships policy and the spending review are hostages to the Brexit impasse, writes David Hughes

David Hughes

Brexit is preventing key government decisions being made on further education, writes AoC chief executive David Hughes

The impact of Brexit will be a rich seam for future historians to mine, reflecting on how our country coped with what has been serious social and political turmoil. That’s true, whatever the outcomes of the impasse we seem to have been in since the referendum in 2016. There will undoubtedly be analyses of the economic costs or benefits and how our economy was altered, as well as the social and political implications.

What might not be so apparent now or in the future is the impact Brexit is having on domestic issues which are effectively on hold because the government has too little time, energy and political capital to make things happen. This Brexit impact is compounded, of course, because the Conservatives have no majority in Parliament. For colleges and for post-16 education and skills, the delays are starting to look worrying, particularly in three areas.

Read more: What is the post-18 review and what does it mean for FE?

Background: Exclusive: Brexit ‘nightmare’ could see GCSEs and A levels postponed

Other views: Brexit: 'We must keep telling EU students and staff they are welcome'

Brexit blocks big decisions

The first is funding. Hardly a week goes by now without another report or speech that highlights and recognises that colleges are grossly under-funded and that post-16 education and lifelong learning needs more investment. Last week it was the turn of the House of Lords in its Tackling intergenerational unfairness report, building on many others. The case for more investment is compelling, but the risk is that Brexit will prevent the full and thorough spending review that the government had committed to this year.

Instead of determining three-year spending plans, it looks likely that one-year budgets will be set, with the implication that some of the "bigger" decisions will be deferred for at least a year. That would be hugely damaging for the education of hundreds of thousands of young people and millions of adults. Their needs have not been put on hold by Brexit diversions; in fact, it would be easy to argue that their needs have increased because of it.

The second is the post-18 landscape. In February 2018, the prime minister launched a review of post-18 funding and education. In her speech at Derby College, the PM made it clear that the review had an ambitious agenda, to look at the options for education, skills and lifelong learning for everyone. By now, the review panel report should have been published and debate about its recommendations well underway. As it is, the report has been delayed, probably awaiting some space for the PM to be able to follow through on her commitment to radical change.

Political commitment to colleges

Time will tell when it emerges, and whether the prime minister will still be in post when it does. The delay is worrying, but the real concern is that this was a review that Theresa May wanted to invest her political capital in. She knew, as we all do, that proposing changes that impact on universities requires enormous political commitment. The sort of commitment that a PM who has announced she will step down may not be able to offer and an incoming PM may not want to.

The third area is apprenticeships. The last thing this policy area needs is any more radical change, but work is needed on the vision, the priorities, the funding for SMEs to engage, some tweaks to the levy, guarantees for every 16- to 18-year-old to have their apprenticeship funded and greater clarity about how apprenticeships fit with the wider post-16 and post-18 education and skills landscape. The risk is that the welcome introduction of the apprenticeship levy is being undermined by implementation issues and the lack of clarity on the vision. In normal times, it’s likely that this would be a high-profile issue, not least because the government’s 3 million starts target is going to be missed. I always disliked the starts target because I view it as misjudged, but the debate about how the apprenticeship programme should develop over the next five to 10 years is muted by the Brexit noise.

All is not lost, of course, because these issues are hardly the domain of party politics, and nor should they be. The support for the Love Our Colleges campaign has been strong across the complete political spectrum because MPs realise, as do employers and others, that investing in our people is a top priority. I’m hopeful that this realisation will prevail eventually, whatever happens in Parliament and whoever is in power. I just want it to prevail soon, because every year of delay means hundreds of thousands of young people and adults missing out on the education and skills that could transform their life chances. And that’s simply not fair.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges


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