In Brexit Britain, skills are more vital than ever before

26th August 2016 at 00:00
Joining the DfE may bring benefits, but losing FE’s strong links with the business and skills agenda would be a big mistake

Like many of us, I’ve long complained about the lack of joined-up thinking across education and skills. I’ve had first-hand experience – in various teaching and management roles in primary, secondary, further and higher education – of the perverse incentives that are set up by a dysfunctional funding system.

The funding rules incentivise many institutions to behave in ways that are at best sub-optimal, with a necessary focus on their own financial challenges, rather than being able to guide learners to a range of opportunities that may be appropriate to their needs and aspirations.

So the decision to combine all elements of education under the Department for Education should be one that I wholeheartedly welcome, but I must admit that I have a number of reservations.

Brexit has changed everything. We are entering a world when any number of factors that used to be taken for granted have now vanished. In the education sector, many institutions made use of European funding in one form or another and there will be – at best – uncertainty over the medium-term implications of our decision to leave the EU.

Potentially of more significance, though, is the story that UK business will now have to tell in the world of transnational investment decisions. The UK has long been a relatively safe market for companies to invest in. We had unfettered access to European markets, a relatively benign governance and tax framework, and a flexible workforce. As a result, the UK has attracted international investment to become the home of many high-value industries, from financial services to media, advanced manufacturing, and research and development.

Brexit has changed everything. We are entering a world when any number of factors that used to be taken for granted have now vanished

The lack of clarity around the new rules of engagement between the UK and the rest of Europe changes this argument significantly. We are now an unknown, floating 21 miles off the shore of the world’s single biggest market. Why would companies choose to invest here? To tip decisions in our favour, a more compelling story is needed, now more than ever.

Last week I was at a meeting with a number of large international manufacturing organisations and the team at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy that has been charged with supporting them. There, I witnessed one of those wonderful moments of clarity as the case for a skilled workforce was made.

Tax regimes can be decided on within Whitehall, as can financial incentives for investment. The financial framework can be designed to ensure that the UK is an attractive place for investment. But these investments serve their purpose only if the right people are available with the right skills. For this reason, it was agreed by everyone around the table – corporations, civil servants and industry associations – that the case for skills and education had never been more important.

So, while the decision to combine schools, FE and HE under one department makes a lot of sense, we must not lose the strong links that have been forged between the business and skills agendas. Only by being sharply focused on the needs of industry, and by ensuring that we can demonstrate that the UK has one of the best-skilled and most flexible workforces in the world, can we continue to make a compelling case for the UK as a great place to invest.

David Allison is founder and managing director of apprenticeship matchmaking platform


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